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Sago Mine Disaster Report Cites Systemic Failures


More than six months after 12 men died underground in the Sago Mine in West Virginia, an independent investigator has released a report on the accident. It lists the equipment problems, human errors, and systemic breakdowns that plagued the mine and the subsequent rescue effort. But it does not cite a definitive cause for the January 2nd explosion.

Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

ANNA SALE reporting:

J. Davitt McAteer, the head of the federal mine safety agency under President Clinton, was appointed by West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin to do an independent investigation of the Sago Mine disaster.

Mr. J. DAVITT MCATEER (Former Assistant Secretary of Mine Safety and Health, Department of Labor): This is an unusual and, to our knowledge, first-time effort to try to address whether the systems work.

SALE: The systems didn't work, the report found, at many levels.

Mr. MCATEER: We didn't prevent an explosion in a sealed area. The seals didn't hold that explosion. We failed to provide adequate breathing protection. And we weren't able to get the rescue teams to them in a timely way.

SALE: The report does not pinpoint what ignited the explosion, but it makes a distinction between what caused the explosion and what caused the disaster. McAteer said regardless of what sparked the blast the seals should have blocked it from the working part of the mine.

Mr. MCATEER: The fact is that the seals did not do what they were supposed to do. Had those seals held these men would be alive.

SALE: The report recommends permanently banning the type of seals used in the Sago Mine and requiring all seals to be able to withstand more pressure. MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, echoed this call. It announced yesterday that it will more than double the current pounds per square inch standard for seals. But McAteer also said that it wasn't just the design of the seals that was a problem. He said testimony indicated that the seals in the Sago Mine were not properly constructed. He called that the company's responsibility.

International Coal Group, the owner of the Sago Mine, defended its seals in a statement saying, quote, ICG believes that the seals were built in compliance with the MSHA-approved plan using construction techniques that are consistent with industry practice.

McAteer's report offers 12 recommendations that go further than the new state and federal laws already passed in Sago's aftermath. He wants all oxygen packs in use to be tested underground to make sure they work. He also called for rescue chambers to be installed in every underground mine in West Virginia.

Mr. MCATEER: If we can keep miners alive, trapped underground, we can get to them. We didn't have that time in this instance.

SALE: The governor received these recommendations for the first time, along with family members yesterday. He called it a road map and said he would evaluate them. But John Groves, whose brother Jerry died in the mine, told reporters the governor made a different vow to families.

Mr. JOHN GROVES (Brother of Sago Mine Victim): The governor promised us that these issues would be implemented into policy here in the state.

Unidentified Man #1: The 12 recommendations.

Mr. GROVES: The 12 recommendations would be issued.

SALE: Pam Campbell said she'll make sure that happens. She lost her brother-in-law in the accident and her nephew still works in the mines.

Ms. PAM CAMPBELL (Sister-in-Law of Sago Mine Victim): I will not stop until we make changes, until somebody listens to us, because they have no idea what this has done to our families.

SALE: State and federal mine agencies have not yet released their final investigation reports on the accident. Thirty-five American coal miners have died so far this year, including one just this week in Kentucky.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Charleston, West Virginia.

YDSTIE: You can read the full report on the Sago Mine disaster at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Sale