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Sago lightning questions unanswered

International Coal Group officials say they cannot yet explain their theory that lightning caused the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine. Tests of that premise have not been completed, they say.

On Tuesday, a company news release declared, “The explosion was ignited by lightning and fueled by methane that naturally accumulated in an abandoned area of the mine that had been recently sealed.”

In a three-page briefing paper, ICG pointed to “unusual streaks” on the mine roof where company officials believe an electrical charge from the lightning may have entered the mine.

“The streaks across the roof appear to have an associated increase in magnetism, which would suggest the passage of electrical energy across or through the rock,” the company paper said.

But, ICG added, “The testing of these unusual features has not been completed to determine if it was created by the passage of electrical energy from lightning.”

Results of ICG’s own investigation were relayed Tuesday in a news release issued by the company’s public relations firm after the close of regular business hours.

ICG officials have refused to answer any questions about the news release or the company’s investigation.

“As discussed, no one from ICG management is going to be available for an interview today,” Vikki Kobasic, an account executive with the public relations firm Dix & Eaton wrote in an e-mail message. “I have added your request to a list of media requesting interviews and will be in touch if an opportunity becomes available.”

Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said MSHA had no immediate response to the ICG statements.

Neither MSHA nor the state Office of Miners Health Safety and Training has completed its investigation of the Sago disaster.

The Jan. 2 explosion trapped 13 men more than 250 feet underground for more than 40 hours. By the time rescue teams reached them, all but one had perished, most slowly succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning.

On Wednesday, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts blasted the ICG announcement as an effort to reduce potential liability in any future lawsuits by families of the miners who died.

“ICG is essentially saying this was an act of God, and we all know you can’t sue God,” Roberts said in a prepared statement. “One can make a case that this announcement is more about future litigation defense purposes than it is about actually shining a light of truth on what really happened.”

Also, previous government reports have indicated that there are ways to reduce the chance of a lightning strike causing a mine explosion.

For example, state investigators have said ICG was taking methane readings from inside the sealed-off area of the mine.

Data from those tests could have hinted that methane was building up to dangerous levels, giving the company a chance to vent the area. Information about readings prior to the blast has not been released.

In its briefing, ICG made it clear the company cannot say how lightning made its way from above ground deep into the Sago Mine.

“There was no obvious conduit directly from the surface, such as a borehole with a metal casing, although searches have been conducted on the surface,” ICG said.

The company briefing continued: “There are several potential paths for the electricity into the sealed area: through the mine, through the ground itself, through the gas well casing and through the ground, or through the network of gas well lines on the surface and into the ground.

“The ground above the sealed area was tested and indicated a lower [capacity to resist] electricity,” the company said. “One of the mapped lightning strikes was 300 feet away from a power pole that supplied power to the mine and it is possible that the electrical energy entered the mine through this mechanism traveling perhaps along the conveyor belt structure.”

Elsewhere in the briefing, though, ICG said there “was no evidence” that the gas well played any role in the explosion.

Also, the company said no conveyor belt extended from the active mine into the sealed area to “serve as a conduit for electrical energy.”

“There are still many more unanswered questions here,” said the UMW’s Roberts. “The responsible thing for all parties to do is to assist the official investigation through to its completion, and not leap to unfounded conclusions before all the facts are in.”

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


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