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Wooten remarks ‘outrage’ miners

By Ken Ward Jr.

kward@wvgazette.com

Sago disaster survivor Randal McCloy Jr. and the United Mine Workers union on Friday criticized state mine safety director Ronald Wooten for calling the Sago Mine a well-run operation.

McCloy and his wife, Anna, were “disappointed and frustrated” by Wooten’s remarks, according to their media spokeswoman, Aly Goodwin Gregg.

In a prepared statement, UMW President Cecil Roberts called the comments “an outrage” that “insults the memories of those brave men” who died in the Sago disaster.

“Twelve people are dead,” Roberts said. “The public testimony of both state and federal inspectors at the investigation was very clear: The Sago Mine had a pattern of significant safety problems, and those problems existed at the time of the explosion. For the state of West Virginia’s highest mine safety official to say otherwise in the face of these facts is inexcusable.”

McCloy was the only survivor from the 2 Left Crew that was deep inside the Upshur County mine when a methane explosion occurred inside a sealed area at about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2.

The explosion killed one worker, fireboss Terry Helms, instantly. Eleven others succumbed to carbon-monoxide poisoning by the time rescue teams reached them 40 hours later. A rescue team was able to get McCloy out of the mine, and McCloy’s doctors say his recovery has been miraculous.

The Sago disaster was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

State investigators believe that lightning ignited the explosion, but say they don’t know how the electrical charge made its way deep into the mine.

Wooten, a longtime mining industry official, took over as director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training in September.

In an interview Thursday, he said his agency’s inspectors had found no violations they believe contributed to the explosion.

After the disaster, state inspectors found at least 33 electrical violations, including two for inadequate lightning protections, but said none played a role in the blast.

Wooten said he could not rule out that investigators would find such violations in their continuing Sago investigation, but so far, he said, all the evidence he has seen shows that the mine was managed and operated properly.

“As far as I know, it was,” Wooten said Thursday. “That’s all I can tell you. To my knowledge, it was a well-operated coal mine.

“I have nothing to tell me that it was not, not withstanding that there were violations written,” he said. “Those are only allegations, and we have to prove those violations.”

In the UMW’s news release, Roberts noted that the Sago Mine had an injury rate that was more than twice the national average in the two years preceding the explosion, and had been cited by federal inspectors for 260 violations during that time period.

“That’s not the record of a well-operated mine,” Roberts said.

State inspectors also found repeated problems at the Sago Mine, but said the management had improved things during the last quarter of 2005.

Gregg, the McCloys’ spokeswoman, said, “To say that it was a ‘well-operated coal mine’ is inappropriate and irresponsible.

“The findings and the citations issued contradict the idea that it was a well-run mine,” she said.

“[The McCloys] are extremely disappointed and frustrated that the state’s lead mine safety official would feel it’s appropriate at this time to compliment a company under investigation by his agency,” Gregg said. “It’s not fair to the investigation or to the families.”

Ben Hatfield, president of the mine’s owner, International Coal Group, has not responded to a Gazette-Mail request, made last month, for an interview.

ICG officials have acknowledged that the Sago Mine has a troubled history, but said they sought to improve the situation after acquiring “full control” of the operation in late 2005.

“We believe that Sago’s miners know that ICG immediately took steps to ensure that safety had its rightful priority and that significant expenditures were made to make their mine a better place to work,” Hatfield said during a public hearing in May.

In its first two complete inspections this year, the Sago Mine did appear to show improvement. Inspectors found four violations during a March visit and 17 during a longer inspection from April to June.

During their two most recent quarterly inspections, though, including one that has not yet been completed, MSHA inspectors cited the Sago Mine for 56 violations. Half of those were deemed by inspectors to create a threat of serious injury or illness.

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


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