MAC: Mines and Communities

Safety fines at mine minimal

Published by MAC on 2006-02-27

Safety fines at mine minimal

by Thomas Frank, USA TODAY

27th February 2006

Federal inspectors routinely concluded that safety violations at the Sago Mine endangered only one person, findings that helped keep fines to a minimum before the disaster that killed 12 miners in January.

A USA TODAY analysis of inspection records shows that inspectors found hundreds of safety and health violations in the West Virginia coal mine. Fines go up - by hundreds and potentially thousands of dollars - if an inspector finds numerous people at risk.

None of the problems found in 2004 and 2005 has been linked to the explosion Jan. 2, which the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration is investigating.

In 90% of Sago's violations in 2004 and 2005, inspectors said one person was endangered, according to a USA TODAY analysis of MSHA inspection reports. The agency declined to discuss the violations, saying they "will be examined" during an internal review of its oversight of Sago before the explosion.


Citations for safety hazards found in the Sago
Mine in 2004 and 2005:
6 Blocked escapeways
1 Chemical smoke
22 Combustible materials
Source: Mine Safety and Health Administration

International Coal Group, which bought Sago last year, improved the mine's safety and reduced injuries, CEO Ben Hatfield has said.

Hatfield told a Capitol Hill hearing in January that all but three of the 208 hazards cited last year had been corrected by Jan. 2.

The federal agency's pattern of finding a single person endangered by most hazards "is the most narrow interpretation of safety law you can take," says former MSHA senior adviser Tony Oppegard. "That's not how the mine act should be interpreted."

Among the violations cited by federal inspectors:

On Aug. 16, 2005, an inspector found a main escape path "obstructed by concrete blocks." On Nov. 8, 2005, an escapeway was "not being maintained in a safe condition to assure passage of anyone." Sago got six citations for blocking escapeways miners use to flee a fire or explosion. Each citation said one miner was endangered. The mine paid $60 fines for two violations. The amounts of the four other fines are being decided.

On Aug. 16, 2005, an inspector found "chemical smoke" being blown toward areas where two mining teams were working. A team typically has eight to 10 miners. The citation said one miner was endangered. A fine is being determined.

Sago was cited for 22 violations from July 2004 to December 2005 for "accumulation of combustible materials" - coal dust and coal chunks that can spread fires and explosions. All 22 violations said one miner was endangered. MSHA fined the mine a total of $1,768 for 17 violations and is deciding fines for the five others.

"If you have coal dust in the air, that becomes part of the explosion," says Robert Ferriter, director of mine safety training at the Colorado School of Mines. "That would certainly affect more than one person. That would affect everybody in the area."

MSHA said 81% of the violations at mines nationwide in 2005 listed one person as endangered. The agency's Citation and Order Writing Handbook directs inspectors to determine "the number of persons who would be expected to be injured if an accident or overexposure occurred as a result of the violation."

Ferriter says, "It's hard for me to envision just one person being exposed if you've got any type of hazard."

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