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Sago miners "did not have to die," UMWA says in report on Sago mine tragedy

March 15, 2007

Explosion likely caused by frictional activity inside sealed area, not lightning

For Immediate Release

Contact: Phil Smith, (703) 208-7241

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) issued its report on the Sago mine tragedy today, concluding that "the events at the Sago mine on January 2, 2006, could and should have been prevented."
"Twelve men are dead today who should not be," UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said in releasing the report. "Their deaths came as the result of a series of bad decisions made by the company and the federal mine safety regulatory agency. Some of these decisions were made in the weeks and months immediately prior to the explosion and in the hours immediately after it. Some of these decisions were made many years prior to the explosion.
"But whenever they were made, all of these misguided decisions contributed to this tragedy," Roberts said. "And without immediate action by mineoperators and regulatory agencies to reverse the effects of these decisions, more tragedies are inevitable."
The UMWA investigation determined that the most likely cause of the explosion was "frictional activity from the mine roof, roof support or upport material, which created an electrical arc underground that ignited an explosive methane-air mixture in the sealed area" of the mine.
The UMWA report says that "there is absolutely no clear evidence to support the theory that lightning was the cause of the explosion. Further, there is no evidence that lightning striking the ground near a mining operation has ever traveled into the underground area of a mine without the presence of a conduit from the surface into the mine, and then caused an ignition or explosion of gas or dust."
There was no conduit present at the Sago mine that could have conducted the energy from a lightning strike into the sealed area.
"Knowing how the methane ignited is important," President Roberts said. "But it is not really material to the subsequent deaths of the miners. The fact is that the conditions at the mine at the time of the ignition caused these 12 tragic deaths. This tragedy was preventable and should never have occurred."
The UMWA cited several decisions made by mine management and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration that set up the deadly conditions inside the Sago mine. One was MSHA's decision in the 1990's to allow substandard seals-including seals made from foam material called Omega Block-to be built instead of the "bulkhead seals" required by Congress in the 1977 Mine Act. The Omega Block seals installed in the Sago mine were completely inadequate to contain the forces of the blast.
The UMWA report also says that Sago mine management submitted and MSHA approved a ventilation plan just weeks before the explosion. The plan caused fresh air to course past the sealed area. This air was separated from the working section's fresh air supply by just one wall. When the explosion occurred, it blew out that wall, meaning contaminated air containing carbon monoxide and other toxic gases and smoke coming from the sealed area was blown directly onto the trapped miners, hampering their effort to escape and eventually killing all but one of them.
The UMWA also cited the use of the extremely rare practice of "second mining" at the Sago mine as a contributing factor to the extreme force of the explosion. A second seam of coal underneath the original seam was mined in the area that was eventually sealed, creating roof heights of up to 18 feet in some areas. This allowed greater than normal amounts of methane to build up in the sealed area, and also created a "piling" effect as the forces from the explosion were compressed as they traveled towards the seals. The extreme forces of the explosion completely obliterated nine of the ten Omega Block seals.
The report also points out that, despite a clear mandate from Congress dating back to 1969, MSHA failed to push for the development of enhanced two-way communications systems and tracking devices that could locate trapped miners underground. The report also faulted the safety agency for not following Congress' mandate to require operators to install safety chambers in mines, even though it has had the authority to do so since the passage of the 1969 Coal Act.
"The real problem here is that the will and intent of Congress when it passed the Coal Act in 1969 and the Mine Act in 1977 has been diluted, modified and subverted by MSHA and mine operators to the point where some practices and policies in place today offer miners little more protection than they had before those laws were passed," Roberts said.
The UMWA report makes dozens of findings and recommendations in mine safety areas, ranging from seals to ventilation, dealing with methane accumulation, the donning and use of self-contained self-rescuer (SCSR) oxygen packs, national mine rescue preparedness, and more.
"We look forward to discussing these recommendations with Congress and MSHA," said UMWA Secretary-Treasurer Daniel J. Kane. "We cannot afford to wait. The sooner we implement these recommendations, either as law or regulations, the more secure miners will be in the knowledge that their jobs are as safe as possible. As this report demonstrates, we've got a long way to go before we get to that point."

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