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Published: Monday, January 09, 2006
Page: 1A
Byline: KEN WARD JR.

International Coal Group's Sago Mine reported a nonfatal injury rate last year that was nearly three times worse than the average similarly sized mine, according to new data published by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The Sago Mine recorded 14 injuries of company employees and two injuries of contractors last year, according to the preliminary MSHA data for 2005, released late last week.

Earlier last week, MSHA data did not include 2005 injury rates for Sago. Agency officials added that data to their Web site some time late in the week.

The safety record of the Sago Mine has become a controversial issue since an explosion trapped 13 miners deep inside the underground mine south of Buckhannon a week ago.

Only one of the miners was alive when they were found more than 40 hours later, barricaded behind a plastic curtain in an effort to block deadly carbon monoxide.

So far, investigators believe the blast occurred in a mined-out, sealed area of the mine. It blew out the mine seal, throwing it into the active mine area.

Last week, MSHA appointed an eight-person investigation team to study the blast. Safety advocates have urged MSHA to hold public hearings, but the agency has refused to answer questions about that possibility.

In addition to investigating possible causes of the blast - including three lightning strikes within five miles of the mine site during the half hour before the explosion - MSHA has said it will examine communication mishaps that led anxious relatives to believe for three hours that 12 of the 13 workers had survived.

The West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training is conducting its own investigation, in coordination with MSHA.

Various members of Congress have called for hearings, and Gov. Joe Manchin has indicated that he has additional plans to investigate the blast and come up with mine safety reforms.

The last West Virginia mining accident to claim more workers' lives occurred on Nov. 19, 1968. In that tragedy, 78 miners died in an explosion at Consolidation Coal Co.'s No. 9 Mine at Farmington, Marion County. In February 1972, 125 people were killed by when a coal slurry dam failed at Buffalo Creek in Logan County. But that disaster did not claim the lives of miners on the job at the Pittston Coal operation.

During the last six months of 2005, the Sago Mine reported at least a dozen accidental roof falls.

The mine also had been cited repeatedly - more than 200 times in 2005 - for a variety of serious safety problems, including violations of its roof control and mine ventilation plans. The company also was cited for violations concerning emergency escapeways and required pre-shift examinations.

In each of the past two years, the Sago Mine recorded nonfatal injury rates that were nearly three times the national average for similar types and sizes of mines, according to the MSHA data.

Last year, the mine recorded a nonfatal injury rate of 17 injuries per 200,000 hours worked, compared to the national average of 6.54 per 200,000 hours worked. Mine safety officials measure fatality and injury rates by the number of incidents per 200,000 hours worked because that is roughly equal to 100 coal miners working full time for a year.

Some industry officials have defended the Sago Mine's safety record.

Last week, West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton told West Virginia Public Broadcasting that the mine's safety record - including the number of citations - was "smack right on with the industry norm."

Officials from ICG have said they knew the mine had safety problems, and set out to try to fix them after taking over the small underground operation late last year.

Gene Kitts, an ICG vice president, said the 46 violations cited by MSHA during the mine's most recent inspection were "not something to be proud of but, at the same time, it was not out of the ordinary."

"No company can stand up ... and say 'we have the perfect safety program,' and we don't need any improvement,'" Kitts said. "It's a continuous improvement program."

None of the 2005 injuries at the Sago Mine appear to have occurred after ICG completed its purchase of the Upshur County mines from Anker Energy on Nov. 18, according to a review of MSHA records.

Before last week's disaster, the Sago Mine had not recorded any fatal mining accidents since at least 1995, the last year for which MSHA's computer data is readily available. The operation is believed to have never had a fatal accident, according to MSHA officials and other mine safety researchers.

But in Kentucky, a miner died in late 2004 at one of the operations that ICG bought earlier that year from Addington Enterprises Inc., according to MSHA records.

Earnie Williams, a 64-year-old heavy equipment operator, was killed while trying to dislodge frozen slurry from a pipeline at ICG Knott County LLC's Supreme Energy Prep Plant at Kite, Ky.

In its report on that Dec. 28, 2004, accident, MSHA said, "The miners cut the line several times and energized the slurry pumps each time trying to force the frozen slurry out of the pipe.

"On one final attempt, the frozen slurry discharged violently out of the line, and traveled approximately 85 feet, hitting and ricocheting off a metal line support, striking Williams in the head," the MSHA report said.

MSHA cited ICG Knott County LLC for not having an adequate program to instruct employees in the safe way to unclog frozen slurry lines, agency records show.

The agency fined ICG $440 for that violation. The company is contesting the penalty, MSHA records show.

Four years earlier, MSHA had warned coal operators of the necessary precautions for slurry unclogging work after a similar accident in December 2000 at Tug Valley Coal Processing, in Mingo County.

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

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