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Union dispute stalls Sago Mine probe

Plans to start a full probe of the Sago Mine fell apart Wednesday when International Coal Group Inc. refused to let members of the United Mine Workers accompany investigators underground.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Plans to begin gathering evidence inside the Sago Mine fell apart Wednesday when International Coal Group Inc. refused to let members of the United Mine Workers accompany state and federal investigators underground.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which had already recognized the union as legal representative for several workers at the nonunion mine, went to U.S. District Court in Elkins seeking an order to grant the union access.

The union’s involvement has been a point of contention for nearly two weeks. Nearly 70 percent of ICG’s miners are being represented not by the UMW but by three co-workers.

“Some of the Sago miners requested that the United Mine Workers be their representatives for the purposes of this investigation, and they have a right to be there,” said Ed Clair, associate solicitor for mine safety and health. “Together, the state and MSHA made a commitment to the families that we would conduct a fair, open investigation, and we decided we needed to take this extraordinary step to keep that commitment.”

State and federal investigators had hoped to enter the mine Wednesday, more than three weeks after an explosion that left 12 men dead.

Mine finally safe enough to enter
Hazardous levels of carbon monoxide and other gases had to be vented and water had to be pumped out before investigators could get in, but the mine was finally considered safe.

“No one went in,” said UMW spokesman Phil Smith. “And that’s frankly as it should be because if this is going to play out the right way — according to law and according to the wishes of the miners — then all the representatives of the miners should be there.”

A few federal investigators had accompanied a mine-rescue team over the weekend as they re-entered the Sago Mine for the first time since the bodies of the dead miners and one survivor were removed Jan. 4, more than 41 hours after the explosion. The team restarted water pumps and repaired damaged ventilation systems.

Investigators will likely search for such things as scorch marks and melted plastic, examine equipment for signs of a short circuit, establish whether the methane detectors were working and take air samples to check for highly combustible coal dust. They also will track the victims’ footprints and look through the miners’ lunch pails or other gear left behind.

The cause of the explosion has yet to be determined, but mine owner International Coal Group Inc. has said it occurred in an area of the mine that had been sealed in December.

Survivor out of coma
The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., officially emerged from a light coma on Wednesday and is now able to chew and swallow soft foods. Dr. Larry Roberts said McCloy, 26, has developed a slight fever but remains in fair condition. McCloy is able to respond to simple commands and follow movements with his eyes.

He may have suffered brain damage from the carbon monoxide exposure in the mine, but the extent of that damage is not yet known.

The accident at Sago was followed by an underground conveyor belt fire that killed two miners at the Aracoma Coal Alma No. 1 mine in Melville. Ellery Hatfield, 47, and Don I. Bragg, 33, died of smoke inhalation, state Department of Health and Human Resources spokesman John Law said Wednesday.

The 14 deaths have prompted calls for tougher mine safety rules at the federal and state levels. A bill shepherded through the Legislature with unusual speed this week by Gov. Joe Manchin requires mine operators to call for help immediately after an accident, keep extra breathing packs underground and equip miners with personal tracking devices.