Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Lightning Striking at Sago?

MSHA had a press conference yesterday in the form of a telephone conference call. The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has one of the stories.

Officials said they were adding two members to the investigation specifically to look into the communication issues during the emergency: Kevin Burns, who directs the agency's small mines program, and Bob Phillips, a veteran coal mine safety specialist at HQ.

The T-R discusses the "lightning" hypothesis, which some of us heard -- as I recall -- even before the miners were found. I believe the investigators should be able to pin down the exact time of the explosion within seconds, because a chart is kept, tracking the operation of a mine's ventilation fan. Explosions generally cause a fan stoppage. Or if not in this case, there would most likely be a marked perturbation on the chart.

I believe lightning-caused explosions to be rare, and don't in 25 years recall one that caused an injury. But it's hardly possible to rule anything out at this stage. One principle to remember is that methane is normally explosive only when mixed with air in concentrations of 5 to 15 percent. Higher and lower concentrations normally won't explode, but sound mining practices of course allow a large margin of safety.

By the way, MSHA invited Mine Safety and Health News and the Charleston Gazette to yesterday's telephone news conference, after leaving them out of the first one. So that's one wrong corrected. (Full disclosure, I stood in for Ellen Smith, who was tied up on another call at the time.)

Also, I applaud MSHA for a partial reversal of its trend towards withholding information in that the agency has posted the mine's past "unwarrantable failure" violations on its website in an annex to the FOIA reading room. That's exactly the kind of thing the FOIA reading room is intended for. And I hope they'll add to the material quickly. Reporters will be seeking access to the mine's approved ventilation and roof control plans, additional violations, inspection and investigation reports and inspector notes from past inspections. Reporters also may want the "k" order MSHA routinely issues in an emergency requiring the mine operator to clear all actions with MSHA; the fan chart; and other hard data.

It is highly significant that the MSHA postings include violations that are currently under contest. In the past two years, MSHA took the position that many enforcement documents would not be released until all litigation and even all potential for litigation was past. Inspector notes were a big issue in this regard for industry people as well as others. As far as this goes, MSHA has done the right thing. We'll see what comes next.

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