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Sago Mine cited for faulty breathing devices

Eight months after 11 miners suffocated following a methane explosion at the Sago Mine, International Coal Group sent at least six miners underground with broken emergency breathing devices, a state inspector has alleged.

Jeff Bennett of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training’s Fairmont regional office cited ICG’s Wolf Run Mining Co. subsidiary for the alleged violation following a Sept. 7 inspection.

Five days later, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Wolf Run for violating a federal regulation that requires emergency breathing devices to be inspected after every shift and replaced if they are not in working order.

Under a 1969 federal law, coal-mine operators must provide all underground workers with a self-contained, self-rescuer, or SCSR, that provides at least one hour’s worth of breathable air.

After receiving a complaint, Bennett inspected 50 SCSRs being worn by miners on two different Sago shifts.

On at least six of the devices, heat indicators showed the units were exposed to excessive heat that make them inoperable, according to a copy of a state citation, released only after the Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request.

Caryn Gresham, spokeswoman for the state mine safety office, said the citation would not be released without a formal FOIA request because of “the pending litigation with regard to the Sago accident.”

The state agency has not yet released its report on the Sago disaster, but families of most of the miners killed have filed wrongful death cases against ICG and various vendors, including the company that provided the mine’s SCSRs.

According to the state citation, Bennett tested the units, and found that two started properly when their activation tags were pulled. One only partly started, and three did not work at all, Bennett wrote. One partly started and three did not work at all when their tags were pulled. Those four units started only after exhaled air was repeatedly blown into them to kick-start the oxygen flow.

The units contain a small amount of oxygen that is supposed to begin flowing when the activation tag is pulled. Ideally, that oxygen provides breathable air until the unit is fully started by the miner exhaling into it.

“Miners wearing the SCSRs that failed the heat test also did not know that a temperature indicator existed and was part of the daily visual inspection, which indicates that the miners have not been properly trained,” Bennett wrote in his two-page inspection report.

The SCSR violations at Sago follow months of renewed interest by mine safety regulators in ensuring the miners have workable breathing devices and are properly trained to use them.

Eleven of the 12 miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster died from prolonged exposure to carbon monoxide while awaiting rescue teams following the Jan. 2 explosion.

Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. said later that four of the SCSRs worn by the trapped miners didn’t work, forcing the crew to share their limited supply of breathable air.

Kentucky miner Paul Ledford, who survived the Darby Mine disaster that killed five workers on May 20, reported later that his SCSR was “very hard to get started” and provided so little air that it “felt like I was smothering.”

Monroeville, Pa.-based CSE Corp., which made the SR-100 model SCSRs used at Sago and Darby, is the biggest player in the U.S. market for the devices. Company officials say their products work, but that miners are often not properly trained to use them and that SCSRs are frequently not maintained.

Ira Gamm, a spokesman for ICG, said that his company expects individual miners to inspect their own SCSRs on a daily basis.

“That includes a visual inspection of the SCSR’s heat indicator,” Gamm said in an e-mail response. “If he finds the indicator does not pass visual inspection, he is expected to report it and the SCSR will immediately be removed from service and replaced.”

Gamm said ICG would contest the state citation.

About a month before the state’s citation, ICG submitted to state regulators an inventory of more than 170 SCSRs used at the Sago Mine.

At the time, the company said the units had been inspected in June by mine safety director Al Schoonover and passed all tests, including those concerning their heat indicators.

Eight days before Bennett’s inspection, the state mine safety office warned operators that extreme heat — from storing SCSRs in parked vehicles — may have damaged units worn by the agency’s own inspectors.

In his inspector report, Bennett indicated that most of the SCSRs he inspected were made before July 2004, when CSE added heat indicators to its units.

The Sago Mine’s inventory, filed with the state, showed the mine purchased at least 25 new SCSRs after the Jan. 2 explosion.

But federal court records indicate that the SCSR carried by Sago victim Jesse L. Jones, 44, of Pickens, was older than the recommended 10-year service life. ICG blamed a typographical error.

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


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