W. Va. Coal Industry Struggles to Find Lightning Solution

December 14, 2006

The apparent cause of a fatal explosion at an Upshur County coal mine in January has the industry grappling with a new problem: how to keep the nation’s underground mines safe from lightning-sparked explosions.

While lightning has long been a suspected cause of the Sago Mine explosion, numerous new federal and state safety rules adopted in the 11 months since the Jan. 2 blast have focused on other issues. Lightning largely has been ignored.

That figures to change since the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has decided lightning was involved. However, the agency’s report on the accident recommends more testing to determine how electricity from a lightning strike could travel more than 2 miles to an abandoned, sealed area underground and spark a methane gas explosion.

Now the question is, how?

“I’m not aware of any confident assertions about what should be done,” said National Mining Association spokesman Luke Popovich, “either within our industry, labor or among the regulators.”

In response to the report, the United Mine Workers, which doubts the lightning theory, wants the state to draft regulations that require miners to be evacuated when storms approach.

An earlier Sago report by J. Davitt McAteer, a special adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, recommended the adoption of emergency measures to increase lightning protection. Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has taken some steps, such as adopting tougher rules for certified electricians, spokeswoman Caryn Gresham said.

“It’s something that we’re looking at,” she said Tuesday.

Coal mine operators prefer options that would keep miners safe without bringing coal production to a halt during bad weather. Among them are creating non-explosive environments in abandoned mine sections, leaving abandoned sections unsealed and building stronger seals. Federal law already requires lightning arrestors.

Bill Caylor, president of the Kentucky Coal Association, said a solution can’t be found until someone determines how electricity got into the mine.

“They need to find out the facts before they try to figure out a cure,” he said Tuesday. “I’m not trying to say that to brush away the issue of safety. Let’s find a true cause and try to cure it.”

The state considered surface and underground electric systems, natural gas lines and wells, conduction by the earth itself and telephone lines, among other things.

Caylor and others believe there are more pressing safety concerns. Although rare, lightning strikes have caused previous underground explosions in worked-out sections of mines that had been sealed, according to a 2001 report by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It can be an enormous problem, but it hasn’t been a problem in the past. This may just be a real one-in-a-million occurrence,” Caylor said. “If we can do things to reasonably prevent it, then we ought to.”

Admittedly, that’s not a politically correct position, said Don Blankenship, chief executive of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co., the nation’s fourth-largest coal producer by revenue.

“If you spend millions of dollars or spend all your time trying to prevent a lightning strike, you probably are endangering people,” Blankenship said. He compared the problem to focusing exclusively on one danger posed by automobiles instead of a broad approach that considers common dangers first.

“People don’t like to accept the realities of it,” Blankenship said. “The next accident is highly unlikely to be caused by lightning.”

The state still has an opportunity to change its conclusions about Sago. Miners’ Health, Safety and Training on Monday halted plans to release its Sago report after families of the dead miners raised questions and concerns about its conclusions.

On Tuesday, the agency said it is reviewing the report and working on a presentation for families. No new date for a meeting with the families has been set, the agency said.

Besides blaming lightning, the report concludes the methane gas explosion in a mined-out and sealed off area was nearly five times more powerful than the foam block seals were able to withstand.

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