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Wooten comments about Sago operation “an outrage,” UMWA‘s Roberts says

December 22, 2006

United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) International President Cecil E. Roberts said today that comments by the Ron Wooten, the head of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training (WVMHST) that the Sago mine was a 'well-operated coal mine' before the explosion that led to the deaths of twelve miners in January are “an outrage, and insults the memories of those brave men.”

“Twelve people are dead,” Roberts said. “The public testimony of both state and federal inspectors in the investigation was very clear: The Sago mine had a pattern of significant safety problems, and those problems existed at the time of the explosion. For the state of West Virginia’s highest mine safety official to say otherwise in the face of these facts is inexcusable.”

“The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) had even scheduled a high-level meeting in Arlington, Va. (where MSHA’s headquarters are located) to put mine management on notice that they needed to clean up their act,” Roberts said. “That’s an extremely rare occurrence under the present administration. For a coal company to get that kind of summons in the enforcement environment that existed before the Sago explosion speaks volumes about what the agency thought about the safety record at Sago.”

Roberts noted that the Sago mine had an injury rate that was more than twice the national average in the two years preceding the explosion and had been cited by MSHA for over 260 violations, several of them classified as ‘significant and substantial.’

“That’s not the record of a well-operated mine,” Roberts said. “MSHA knew it, which is why it called the meeting with upper-level mine management. If the state of West Virginia’s records that Mr. Wooten is basing his comments on don’t reflect that, then it raises the question: Why not?”

In his published comments to the Charleston Gazette, Wooten also indicated that it “wouldn’t be practical to evacuate mines during lightening storms,” comparing such a situation with a roof fall behind the seals at Sago.

“First of all, it’s curious that Mr. Wooten would raise a roof fall as the cause of this explosion,” Roberts said. “Does that mean he’s re-thinking his theory that lightning caused this? I would submit that it might be wise for him to do so.

“Secondly, the two situations have nothing in common with each other in terms of accident prevention,” Roberts said, “We know how to control for roof falls by installing mesh, additional roof supports and extra roof bolting and straps. If lightning did indeed cause this explosion, there remains no answer for how it happened and what needs to be done to control it. Mr. Wooten’s own statements make that clear.

“That’s why the UMWA is calling for the evacuation of a mine in the event of an approaching lightning storm,” Roberts said. “If we know lightning can kill miners underground, but we don’t know how, then why in God’s name would we make them stay underground in a situation where their lives are at risk and we can’t control for it? That’s a recipe for disaster.”

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