12 Months After Sago, Coal Industry Still Changing

Associated Press
Monday, January 1, 2007; 5:55 PM

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Many of the safety measures state legislatures and Congress rushed to adopt to protect the 46,000 people working in the nation's underground coal mines after the Jan. 2. Sago Mine explosion have yet to take effect.

There are still no rescue chambers or wireless tracking and communications equipment in the country's 606 underground coal mines, and it's unlikely there will be until federal requirements kick in more than two years from now. Hundreds of emergency air packs that are to be stored underground -- though currently required by law -- are on backorder and will take months to deliver.

"You can't walk over and flip the switch and change it all in a year," said James Dean, who spent eight months as West Virginia's mine safety chief following the Sago Mine explosion. "The negative is, it's not happening fast enough."

Experts from International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago mine, and state investigators concluded an unusually powerful lightning strike somehow ignited methane gas and sparked the explosion. However, some family members of miners who died at Sago say the lightning theory is just a way for coal companies to blame an act of God and reduce liability.

The explosion killed 12 men. Only one member of the trapped crew -- Randal McCloy Jr. -- was rescued after more than 40 hours underground.

Over the next 12 months, 35 more American coal miners died on the job, including seven lost in two more high-profile accidents. As the death toll grew toward the highest total since 1995, lawmakers decided to act.

The president signed the broadest federal safety law in nearly three decades, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, in June. Lawmakers from West Virginia, Kentucky and other coal mining states acted as well.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated the new federal legislation will cost the industry $128 million -- but that figure doesn't include some costs, such as lost production when miners are training.

Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy Co., which had a fire in one of its coal mines that killed two miners just weeks after the Sago tragedy, says many of the changes are misguided.

"A lot of politicians are simply trying to gain favor and a lot of the others involved simply don't understand the issues," he says. "I don't think that what we're doing is nearly as helpful as it could and should be."

Blankenship is disappointed that regulators required heavy expenditures on air packs using 20-year-old technology rather than spending for a new generation of breathing gear, a view shared by officials with Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy Inc. and St. Louis-based Peabody Energy.

In a rare instance of agreement, United Mine Worker officials say the wave of legislation has done little.

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