W.Va. proposes mine lightning protection

W.Va. proposes mine lightning protection

A state agency recommended Thursday that coal mine operators take steps to curtail lightning damage, a year after 12 miners died because of an explosion believed to have been triggered by a storm.

The recommendations are the first public proposal for lightning protection by the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training since it determined that a powerful electrical storm caused the disastrous methane gas explosion at the Sago Mine in January 2006.

The proposals came a day after the agency released its final report on the Sago disaster, which had already been circulating for weeks and was contested by critics, including victims’ relatives, who dispute the lightning theory. The final report made few changes and still concludes that lightning caused the explosion.

The agency on Thursday proposed more and better grounding systems for surface and underground electrical equipment; lightning arrestors on surface equipment; and insulators on tracks and other metal structures where they enter mines.

Tom Harmon, the agency’s chief electrical inspector, estimated that about 35 percent of West Virginia’s underground coal mines already have systems similar to those recommended. The state has about 160 underground coal mines.

The final report on the Sago disaster does not determine how energy from a lightning strike could have traveled 2 miles from the surface to the sealed area of the mine.

One crew escaped after the blast, but a second crew deeper inside the mine became trapped. One miner died in the explosion itself, while 11 others succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped more than 40 hours. Only one man, Randal McCloy Jr., survived.

Also Thursday, the operator of the Sago Mine confirmed that it was cited by state inspectors for using inadequate equipment this week to check for methane.

International Coal Group received the citation Wednesday after inspectors found that a conveyer belt examiner, who conducts mandatory pre-shift checks for methane, did not have an extension to check high portions of the mine.

“Supervisors have since taken special precautions to ensure that belt examiners have the appropriate extension probes available,” ICG said.

The citation carries a fine, but the penalty has not been set, said Caryn Gresham, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training. The agency must first review the violation and the mine’s history, she said.

Now that the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training has completed its investigation into the Sago disaster, responsibility for the Sago Mine shifts to the Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety. The panel is required to review the accident and make its own findings, as well as consider regulatory changes.

Half the board consists of representatives of the United Mine Workers, which disputes that lightning was to blame. Several board members said Thursday that they might wait for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to complete its own Sago investigation before taking action.

MSHA Director Richard Stickler has said the agency hopes to release its Sago report by April.

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