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Sago Mine safety record not spotless
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette


January 04, 2006
Wednesday PM

Four times in the last six months, federal inspectors raised concerns about an accumulation of "combustible" materials at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia and asked the owner specifically to clean up any coal dust, an explosive powder that is highly susceptible to spontaneous combustion when dispersed.

A closer look at the owner's safety record shows that International Coal Group's operation of the Sago mine was not spotless. But if anything, ICG improved safety performance in the last quarter of 2005 after acquiring the mine from Anker West Virginia Mining Co. last year.




"It appears under the new leadership there has been a significant improvement to the safety, at least it appears so," said Larry Grayson, chair of the mining and nuclear engineering department at the University of Missouri-Rolla.

While the mine received a total of 208 citations and more than $24,000 in fines from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in 2005, a threefold increase from 2004 when there were 68 citations and $9,515 in fines, it received fewer citations in 2005's fourth quarter (46 violations) than it did in the third quarter (70 violations).

The number of "significant and substantial" violations, which carry higher fines and indicate that federal inspectors found something that could cause a serious safety problem, also fell in the fourth quarter compared with the third, from 42 to 18. Most serious were issues involving breathable dust, methane control and roof-fall prevention, violations that carried fines of about $250.

Also down were "orders," which MSHA issues in cases of safety breaches requiring immediate attention. There were 10 such orders issued in the third quarter and three in the fourth quarter. Four of the 13 were orders asking the owner to address the "accumulation of combustible materials." Others involved record keeping and ventilation.

Fines still have not been issued for the more recent orders. The highest received by International Coal for 2005 is $900 - well below the maximum amount, which can top $50,000, according to Grayson.

International Coal is touting its safety record.

Grayson said the company does not have a reputation for being a safety hawk, nor does it have a reputation for ignoring risks.

"They don't stand out either way to me," he said.

J. Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant secretary for Mine Safety and Health in the U.S. Department of Labor during the Clinton administration, said that while "all violations are serious," the raw number of citations alone does not put into context how safe a mining company is.

McAteer, now vice president for sponsored programs at Wheeling Jesuit University, said there is a difference between a citation for a burned-out light bulb and for accumulation of potentially explosive coal dust.

Still, he said, regardless of the individual violations, there is a cumulative effect on safety.

"You can have a broken signal light on your car and say to yourself, 'It's not a major problem,' and then you have a broken headlight and that's not a major problem but when you have enough of these, when they accumulate, that's what you have to be careful about.

"In mining, the line between an accident and a non-accident is very thin."


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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