Thursday, April 27, 2006

Randall McCloy's Story

AP reports it obtained a letter from rescued Sago miner Randall McCloy to families of other victims, providing a heartbreaking first-hand account of the men's ordeal.

McCloy wrote that the trapped miners didn't even have as much oxygen as regs required because several devices didn't work properly.

"The first thing we did was activate our rescuers, as we had been trained. At least four of the rescuers did not function,' McCloy wrote. 'I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves, while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from others. There were not enough rescuers to go around.'

...his letter suggests most of the trapped men had no more than 30 minutes of air, and they used it quickly as they tried to signal their location to people they believed were searching for them above, listening for sounds.

"...'The air was so bad that we had to abandon our escape attempt and return to the coal rib, where we hung a curtain to try to protect ourselves,' he wrote.

"We attempted to signal our location to the surface by beating on the mine bolts and plates. We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding away. We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could. This effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a responsive blast or shot from the surface."

In other words, they followed a strategy that saved the miners in the July 2002 Quecreek flood; but it failed them.

It's not known why MSHA didn't bring its well-known seismic system, which detects such underground pounding, into play at Sago as at Quecreek. The system has also located living victims in earthquakes.

A public hearing into the Sago tragedy starts Tuesday in Buckhannon, W.Va. MSHA and the state are running the hearings jointly. Davitt McAteer, former head of MSHA, is chairing the hearing. Two days have been allowed.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Same Old Same Old

Computer problems again, and still shopping for a new system. Meanwhile...

Coal mine fatalities have climbed to 26, compared with 22 for the whole year of 2005. Metal nonmetal mine deaths are at 8, similar to the previous three years, all of which marked 8 or 9 at this time.
Regional reporters are continuing to dig into mine safety and evidently hitting new veins of the "same old" pay dirt: lax enforcement.

At the state level, the Courier-Journal makes connections:

You probably won't remember the name Charles Robert Stump, but he has made the news twice in a week.

Back in 2004, he ran the Highlands Mining and Processing underground operation near Cumberland in Harlan County. There he ordered work to continue, despite the "red tags" with which state inspectors had closed parts of his mine, because of unsafe conditions....

Yesterday, state officials released a copy of the agreement that settled the case. It revokes Mr. Stump's mine foreman papers for three years, probates his underground miner certificate for that same period and slaps him and the company, jointly, with a $10,000 fine.

...The firm is defunct, so who knows whether Highlands will pay its share.

....He is an owner at the Tri Star Coal mine in Pike County where, just last week, 28-year-old David Chad Bolen died while moving a shuttle car anchor."

And at the federal level Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) is calling for a hearing into charges that a federal inspector was instructed to back off enforcement at the Alma mine before a disastrous fire this year that killed two.

The Post-Gazette had the original story and followup:

"Minness Justice, an inspector with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, told fellow MSHA employee Danny Woods that he believed dangerous amounts of spilled coal and dust had been allowed to accumulate along the belt line, raising the risk of a fire, and that the belt's fire suppression system was inadequate, Mr. Woods said.

"'He was just told to back off and let them run coal, that there was too much demand for coal,' Mr. Woods said. 'He came up and told me he was told to do certain things and the inspectors before him hadn't done a proper job.'"

Whatever the truth of the matter, I hope very much that MSHA and its bosses at the Department of Labor will not be planning to fire Mr. Justice and/or Mr. Woods. Not even after a couple of years and on "unrelated" charges.

It is to be hoped that somebody learned that much from the actions against former MSHA Academy superintendent Jack Spadaro, when he complained of management coercion in the investigation of a coal mine impoundment failure.

One summary of how that played out is here and a followup here.

Some good things also are happening. MSHA has approved a couple of radios for underground coal mine use, which could help in any future Sago-like underground rescue efforts. MSHA also has apparently started to give some publicity to big fines it issues, for example here and here. This could be a p.r. strike against "lax enforcement" charges; it's also just a good thing to do.

An important international mine heatlh and safety symposium took place last week at Wheeling Jesuit University. Here's just one story from a local paper.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Something Gone Badly Wrong

And it was not just one major tragedy.

This week U.S. coal mine deaths for the year climbed to 24. That's 12 in the Sago explosion, two in the Aracoma mine fire, plus 10 more. Ten individual deaths.

Last year at this time, the total number of coal mining deaths was 3.

The corresponding figure was 9 in 2004, 11 in 2003 and 10 in 2002.)