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Ventilation problems cited before Sago blast

Federal inspectors found major ventilation problems at the Sago Mine in the months before the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners, according to government records released Thursday.

Mine managers were not ensuring that enough fresh air flowed through the mine to avoid a methane explosion, according to notes from U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors.

MSHA inspectors discovered similar problems in August and November, according to inspection notes and other records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“If this type of mining practice continues, miners will be exposed to harmful dust or methane ignitions,” one MSHA inspector wrote in his notes from a Nov. 1 examination of the Sago Mine.

In the weeks before the explosion, MSHA had rejected a change in the Sago Mine’s ventilation plan. Agency officials said that it would not have provided enough fresh air to working areas of the operation.

On Thursday, MSHA released 1,800 pages of inspectors’ notes and other enforcement documents, along with various mine permit records, from International Coal Group’s Sago Mine.

Agency officials did not announce the action, or notify members of the media who had filed formal requests seeking the records. Instead, the documents were quietly posted on MSHA’s Internet site, www.msha.gov.

The release of the inspectors’ notes, though, is the first such move by MSHA since the Bush administration stopped providing those records several years ago.

Previously, MSHA had always provided inspectors’ notes along with formal citations and other enforcement records. In the records released on the Sago Mine, MSHA omitted the names of agency inspectors from their notes and official reports.

MSHA officials and state regulators are continuing their investigation of the Sago explosion, which was the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

A complete picture of whether any previously cited violations played a role in the disaster may not emerge for months.

But the records released Thursday reveal that MSHA inspectors were increasingly concerned about ventilation problems at the Upshur County operation.

Coal mine managers must carefully design and maintain underground mines to avoid fires, explosions and other disasters.

Elaborate ventilation systems are needed to give miners clean air to breathe, and to control the build-up of explosive methane gas and coal dust.

In an Aug. 3 inspection, MSHA officials found that ventilation in the 1-Left area of the mine — near where the explosion is believed to have occurred — was inadequate.

After using a wheeled wind-speed detector called an anemometer, the inspector wrote, “When this inspector attempted to take an air reading in the last open crosscut between the Number 2 and Number 3 entries, the wheel on the approved and calibrated anemometer would not even turn.”

Less than a week later, MSHA found a similar lack of adequate air flow during an Aug. 8 inspection.

This time, the inspector predicted that an accident was unlikely because “a small amount of air movement was detected and also no methane was detected.”

Still, the inspector wrote, “when an accident does occur from this type of condition, it will be of a serious nature from the quantity of air not being maintained to sweep methane and respirable dust from the face areas of this section.”

The inspection records also show that MSHA was repeatedly finding buildups of various types of combustible materials in the Sago Mine.

On July 18, one inspector found wooden blocks and pallets, cardboard boxes and oil cans in an air intake tunnel. The inspector noted there had been 10 similar violations since Jan. 9.

Two days later, on July 20, the inspector found loose coal and coal fines mixed with rock on a coal feeder. The inspector noted there had now been 11 similar violations since Jan. 9.

As late as Dec. 20 — two weeks before the explosion — MSHA was still rejecting a ventilation change proposal it said would not be safe for the Sago miners.

Generally, crosscut tunnels that run perpendicular to the mine’s main entries are blocked off to control ventilation and ensure that enough air flows to the mine face to push methane out.

In late October, Sago mine managers had proposed to not wall off three crosscuts away from the mine face.

Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s district manager in Morgantown, rejected the proposal in a Nov. 8 letter.

“Since adequate justification that ensures the safety of the miners has not been provided, the request is not being approved,” Stricklin wrote.

Sago officials submitted the request again on Nov. 30, and Stricklin again turned them down.

“The request may be considered if sufficient justification is presented, other than for convenience,” Stricklin wrote in a Dec. 20 letter.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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