Sago Mine's Safety Record 'Troubling'

Renee Montagne talks to Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary for mine safety and health for the Department of Labor, about the safety of mines. McAteer say it is important to focus first on the ongoing rescue effort at West Virginia's Sago mine, but speaks to the need to investigate potential safety violations.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We are joined now by Davitt McAteer, former assistant secretary of mine safety and health for the US Department of Labor.

Hello.

Mr. DAVITT McATEER (Vice President, Wheeling Jesuit University): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: It does sound as if things are not looking very good for these 13 miners.

Mr. McATEER: Certainly that's the case. The longer things go, the less hope that you have, although you always maintain some. And the second fact, the fact that there has been an elevated level of carbon monoxide suggests that the--it's not a positive sign. It's a very negative sign.

MONTAGNE: As we have heard, the Sago mine has been cited repeatedly for alleged safety violations, something like 200, over 200 citations. What kinds of safety violations would have been noted?

Mr. McATEER: Well, the safety violations that I've understood to be the case have dealt with accumulations of combustible materials, principally coal and with the fire extinguisher. You have to look at those violations themselves. This is not certainly not a pristine mine but it is not the worst that I've heard of. But those kinds of violations would tell you--suggest to you as management that you ought to be on top of the situation, that you ought to be taking steps to correct it, because you want the mine to come out with a lower number. The fact that they've had a number of violations and the elevated number of accidents--that's three times the national average--again suggests that you want to be better than that. And that--you know, these two factors are not a positive indicator for mine safety.

MONTAGNE: Any way to know at this point in time if any of the alleged safety violations would have affected either this explosion or the actual safety of these miners?

Mr. McATEER: I couldn't say that at this point. I just--we don't have enough information for that.

MONTAGNE: Now you just said that the Sago mine is not the best but not the worst. How does its safety record compare to other coal mines?

Mr. McATEER: Well, I mean, its safety record is three times the national average for a mine its size.

MONTAGNE: Its accident record, is that it?

Mr. McATEER: Its accident record, that's right. It's three times the national average. That's not a good sign and that's something to be quite concerned about. There are mines that are worse than that but this is not a good sign. It's a small operation, about 400,000 tons, and you want to be going in the other direction. As a safety expert you want to say, `You want to bring those numbers down and you want to bring down the number of citations and violations.' And both the state and the federal agencies found certain violations and these were significant in a serious sense; significant violations. So that again tells you--suggests that you want to be on top of it.

MONTAGNE: You...

Mr. McATEER: Mining safety, much like other kinds of issues, is not just one moment in time, but is a bunch of factors. And if you've got those factors and those numbers running against you, it suggests that your program is not working where it should be.

MONTAGNE: But the miners' families are saying today and yesterday that--some of them said that the miners knew about the problems in the mines, were worried about this mine.

Mr. McATEER: I heard those interviews, and I'm not close to this mine. I don't have a--I can't speak to the individual miners' concerns. I think that it's always disconcerting when miners suggest that there have been problems and those problems haven't been dealt with, because in a mining situation you have to deal with safety problems very much up front and you have to be on top of it. You can't let those situations lag.

MONTAGNE: And then many of us remember the successful rescue in Pennsylvania just a few years ago when miners were trapped for 77 hours and came out in pretty good shape. How does this accident differ from that?

Mr. McATEER: Well, it has a different set of facts, and that accident occurred because of a water breakthrough. This accident has involved an explosion, where there's been a change in the atmosphere in the underground setting. And that change in atmosphere suggests that the air becomes toxic, and while you might be able to escape water, it's much harder to escape the toxic atmospheres that were seen at--now we don't give up hope, because of--the miners are very crafty and clever and have historically been able to survive and protect themselves, but it does not look terribly good.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

Mr. McATEER: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Davitt McAteer was head of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration. He's now vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

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