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Technology, Information, Knowledge Available That Could Have Alleviated Sago Disaster, United Mine Workers of America President

January 17, 2007

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President Cecil E. Roberts issued the following statement today regarding the Congressional hearings and federal and state investigations into the Sago Mine disaster:

"The hearing before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Resources, Education, and Related Agencies will be an important opportunity for the Senate to begin gathering information about the tragedy at Sago and what can be done to prevent anything like it from ever happening again. The UMWA thanks Senators Byrd, Specter, Harkin and the other members of the subcommittee for undertaking this critical first step.

"The families of the Sago miners — indeed, miners and their families across America — deserve no less than the full attention of their government at this critical time. The hard fact is that for far too long, the attention and actions of the U.S. government when it comes to safety and health in America's coal mines have not just been lacking, but in some cases have made it more difficult to protect miners' safety on the job.

"The fact is that in the wake of several accidents - including tragedies like that at Sago - dating back a decade or more, investigations done by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have identified causes of these accidents and recommended many solutions to them that have never been implemented. Other proposed regulations that could perhaps have prevented this tragedy - or at the very least helped get a rescue operation underway faster - were discarded by the newly-installed MSHA leadership in 2001.

"In addition, advancements in communications technology that could have helped speed the rescue effort and a new generation of oxygen-generating personal rescue devices have been languishing for years because of inaction and a lack of direction by the policy-makers at MSHA.

"I will be discussing the specifics of these findings and recommendations during my testimony before the Senate subcommittee next Monday, January 23. It's my most sincere hope that the Congress will take quick action to ensure that MSHA once again becomes an agency that puts enforcement of the law, enforcement of its own regulations and proactive rule-making that helps ensure safer workplaces for miners at the forefront of its agenda.

"I also want to note that as of today, the UMWA has been designated the official miners' representative in the joint West Virginia/MSHA investigation that is underway at the Sago mine. Even though Sago is a non-union mine, several individual miners have signed papers designating the union as their representative, as is their right under the Mine Safety and Health Act.

"This is a courageous act by these miners, and is frankly something that they likely would not have done had they not been assured anonymity by MSHA and the state. They fear for their jobs, because they know the unwritten but widely practiced rule among non-union coal operators — if you talk to the union about anything, you're fired. That creates a state of fear in coalfield communities across America these days, and increasingly leads to mines that put production first and safety last.

"MSHA has accepted their designation of the UMWA as their representative and Governor Manchin has as well. Our safety representatives will be on-site tomorrow and will be there every day as we learn more about the events that led up to this tragedy. Be assured that we will pursue every avenue as we seek to understand what happened at Sago, because the truth is that when it comes to safety, we represent every miner in America and Canada whether he or she chooses to pay dues to this union or not.

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