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Sago Mine operator says company spent heavily on safety improvements before accident

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – The operator of the Sago Mine said Wednesday that the company had spent heavily on safety improvements in the weeks before an explosion that led to the deaths of 12 miners.Ben Hatfield, chief executive of International Coal Group Inc., said the company rebuilt two miles of primary escapeway, upgraded the mine’s rail transportation system and implemented employee safety training that exceeded legal requirements.In the last six months of 2005, there was a 60 percent reduction in lost-time injuries at the mine.”In my opinion, the Sago Mine was a safe operation,” Hatfield said.Hatfield’s comments came a day after the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration released documents showing that 17 of the 208 alleged safety violations at the mine in 2005 were for serious problems, including the accumulation of “combustible materials” such as loose coal and coal dust.Hatfield said, however, that company officials “have heard nothing in the course of all this debate about the safety violations that even remotely connects” with the cause of the explosion.Officials have said the explosion likely occurred in an area of the mine that was sealed in December.Also Wednesday, Hatfield said the mine should be sufficiently vented of toxic gases in four to seven days, allowing investigators to enter for the first time since the disaster.ICG has said it inherited many of the mine’s safety problems from its former owner and had been working to correct the violations. ICG formally took control of the former Anker Energy mine in November, but started work there as management consultants in June, Hatfield said Wednesday.All of the 17 citations were for “aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence,” according to MSHA documents.Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official and mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky, said it’s that fact – not just the number of violations – that should be a concern.”This type of violation indicates that the operator knew the condition existed and didn’t do anything to fix it,” he said. “It shows an indifference to safety or an extreme lack of care.”In the last citation issued before the accident, dated Dec. 14, an MSHA inspector said a failure to address coal dust and excessive amounts of loose coal – in some places 29 inches deep – “showed a high degree of negligence for the health and safety of the miners.”But the inspector who issued the citation did not think the violation would lead to a miner’s death or permanent disability – the two most severe risks that could have been cited. None of the 17 citations listed death as a risk, and only one violation was considered highly likely to lead to injury.Most of the 17 citations found that the violations were “reasonably likely” to result in “lost workdays or restricted duty.”Ronald Grall, a 40-year veteran of coal mining, worked at the Sago mine for four months before the accident as an inspector of the mine’s air intake system, escape passageways and water pumps.”They have made vast improvements in the ventilation since I’ve been here,” Grall said. “This company, ICG, they really go safety first.”The 208 violations – a number higher than normal for a mine of its size – were up from just 68 citations the year before. The mine’s injury rate for employees per hours worked of 17.4 in 2005 was nearly three times higher than the national average rate of 6.54.Hatfield acknowledged most of the violations came in the second half of 2005, but said that was a result of a 31 percent increase in the number of “inspection days” by MSHA officials.”We believe the high number of violations is attributable to a significant increase in enforcement standards by the MSHA inspectors that examined this mine virtually every day,” Hatfield said.Dennis O’Dell, the administrator of occupational health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America, said federal officials were cracking down on mistakes made at Sago.”I think they were trying to go in the right direction,” he said. “They were writing some pretty serious violations at that mine. … That mine was headed for closure.”Both O’Dell and Oppegard expressed concern that miners at Sago would be reluctant to complain about unsafe conditions because it was a nonunion mine. In such an operation, O’Dell said, a company can fire an employee “for any reason at any time.””Coal mining jobs are hard to get,” Oppegard said. “And miners are fearful of losing their jobs.”It was a concern echoed by Jones, who said miners have been known to ignore violations for the sake of their jobs.”Things are sad, but it’s the way things are,” he said. “It ain’t changed much from 30 years ago.”—Associated Press Writer Kelley Schoonover contributed to this report from Charleston, W.Va.


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