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Sago families still angry

Frustrated by a cursory briefing and a confusing report, families of the miners killed in the Sago Mine disaster are focusing their anger on Gov. Joe Manchin and his pick to run the state mine safety office, longtime CONSOL Energy official Ron Wooten.

“Our governor has to be totally embarrassed for appointing him to this position,” said Pam Campbell, the sister-in-law of Sago miner Marty Bennett.

Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, has not returned repeated phone calls. A spokeswoman said he would not discuss the matter publicly until after he meets again with Sago families.

Lara Ramsburg, Manchin’s communications director, said the governor was “disappointed” with the handling of Monday’s meeting. Ramsburg added, “the governor has confidence in all of our appointees, including Mr. Wooten.”

Several versions of the state’s Sago report have been circulated since Monday, when Manchin and state investigators were set to release it to Sago families and the public.

Families became upset when Wooten simply handed them copies of the report and referred them to it for answers to their questions.

During the private meeting, Manchin stepped in and told Wooten he had expected a more detailed briefing, similar to one given a month earlier to the widows of two miners killed in the Aracoma Mine fire. Administration officials promised the families a better briefing, and then canceled an afternoon news conference, but not before copies of the report leaked out and were splashed all over the news.

Campbell said that Monday’s meeting “was a disaster.”

“Ron Wooten — all he did was bring the report, dump it in our laps, and he was going to leave it at that,” Campbell said.

Campbell and other families were especially upset at Wooten’s response to a question about what would happen if another lightning storm occurred near an underground mine with newly constructed seals.

“I wouldn’t want to be in there,” Wooten said, according to Campbell and others who attended Monday’s meeting.

Campbell said, “We’ve got miners in coal mines that our director of mine safety and health would not want to be in. They have no plan implemented about what they’re going to do if there is a lightning storm.”

The state’s report says lightning probably caused the explosion, but that investigators have been unable to explain how the electrical charge got into the mine from more than a mile away.

But in the report, investigators contradict themselves several times in trying to explain that problems with the electrical system in and around the mine had nothing to do with the disaster.

For example, the report declares in several places that, “no evidence has been found of damage” to the above-ground electrical supply system or underground power systems “that can be attributed to the lightning strike.”

But in another section, the report details possible lightning damage on two power poles carrying lines into the mine, and ungrounded poles near a poplar tree investigators believe was hit by one of two major lightning strikes around the time of the explosion.

The report notes that, “displaced earth at the base of the pole and the discolored ground wire could be indications of lightning.”

Elsewhere, the report says that any lightning charge that found its way underground through mine power systems “would not have found an uninterrupted connection over metallic conductors the entire way to the region of the explosion origin.”

“The only metallic conductors extending past the mainline track and belt are the mats of wire roof mesh installed in the track entry, belt entry, and primary escapeway,” the report says. “There are numerous gaps in the wire roof mesh.”

Other parts of the report, though, suggest that a lightning-induced charge could have jumped such gaps.

The shale mine roof is high in clay content, the report says, and would offer little resistance to a traveling electrical charge.

The report insists, “This by itself is not necessarily evidence this was the path the electricity from lightning traveled.”

Tests have been performed to determine if this could have happened, but state investigators haven’t been given the results, the report says.

In their report, state investigators discounted any connection between missing lighting protections at the Sago Mine and the lightning strike they believe ignited the Jan. 2 explosion.

Inspectors cited the missing lightning protections — called arrestors — as “non-contributory” violations during their probe of the disaster. The new agency report offers little explanation for the decision, one of many questions that continue to go unanswered about the state’s Sago investigation.

On Thursday, administration officials said the state does not plan to rewrite its report. Instead, the state mine safety agency will meet again with families to provide a more thorough briefing and better answers to questions.

“It has nothing to do with the report,” said Larry Puccio, Manchin’s chief of staff. “It’s the presentation.”

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


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