W. Va. Tackles Mine Safety Rules to Address Sago Tragedy

Members of the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety say the panel may have a tough time crafting regulations to address the cause of the Sago Mine accident.

The process of writing those rules officially began Wednesday when state investigators briefed the board on their report on the Jan. 2, 2006 accident that killed 12 miners. The board has 180 days to adopt findings of fact about the cause of the accident and adopt regulations to address it.

That figures to be difficult in part because United Mine Workers representatives on the board don’t agree with the state’s lightning theory.

State investigators believe an electric charge from a powerful lightning strike traveled 2 miles from above ground to an abandoned, sealed area deep within the Upshur County mine. But investigators still haven’t figured out how the charge reached the area to set off a methane gas explosion.

That conclusion isn’t new. Copies of the state’s Sago report have been circulating for more than a month, but the document wasn’t officially released until Wednesday.

“I don’t think they’ve convinced me that it’s lightning,” said UMW lobbyist and board member Ted Hapney, who added that investigators haven’t convincingly ruled out a rock fall or other more mundane cause.

Board member Chris Hamilton, who represents the West Virginia Coal Association, doesn’t doubt that lightning played a role. But he’s reluctant to adopt regulations addressing lightning without “a more clearly defined cause.”

Whether administrator Jim Bennett will recommend regulations in his report on the investigation remains uncertain. “Right now, I’m not sure,” he said.

There are, however, some things the board can do, such as adopting regulations to require stronger seals underground. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration upped its strength requirement for the type of seals used at Sago to 50 pounds per square inch from 20 psi last July. The state has yet to set its own standard, but investigators suspect the Sago explosion generated as much as 95 psi.

Hapney suggested the board also could adopt regulations addressing carbon monoxide monitors. Current state rules don’t address carbon monoxide monitors, which are used to detect fires. Members of the Sago investigative team suggested adopting carbon monoxide detector regulations.

“The state here has indicated there are some things that can be done,” Hapney said.

The board will resume its two-day meeting on Thursday.