Disturbing Safety Violations Seen at Sago Mine

Federal documents suggest that the Sago mine, where 12 men died after being trapped by an explosion Monday, has a record of committing serious safety violations.

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And federal documents do suggest that the Sago Mine has a record of committing serious safety violations. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:

A federal inspector toured the Sago Mine on December 14th. Federal records indicate that he was so troubled by what he found that he ordered the managers to shut down part of the mine until they fixed the problem, which they did. What was the problem? Records show that the inspector cited the mine for, quote, "Accumulation of combustible materials," unquote. The mine exploded less than three weeks later.

The explosion was probably not related to the specific problem that the inspector found back in December since the company had already fixed it. But the records of the mine's safety and health administration show that Sago has established a pattern of committing violations over and over again. And we're not talking about little knit-picky stuff.

Mr. JOE PAVLOVITCH(ph) (Retired Manager, Mine Safety and Health Administration): Oh, no. No, those would be what we would consider to be very serious violations.

ZWERDLING: That's Joe Pavlovitch. He retired as a district manager with the Mine Safety & Health Administration, or as people call it, MSHA, and he says Sago's history of violations could have created the conditions for Monday's explosion. Pavlovitch has been inspecting mines and supervising inspections since 1971 and he says he was astonished when he found out yesterday that inspectors shut down parts of the Sago mine at least 15 times in just the past year. Four of those partial shutdowns had to do, once again, with accumulation of combustible materials. Pavlovitch says shutdown orders these days are fairly unusual.

Mr. PAVLOVITCH: Many of the mines in the country -would get none in a year's time.

ZWERDLING: He says the government almost never shuts down an entire mine. Pavlovitch stresses that he has never seen the Sago mine, but he spent part of yesterday reviewing federal records with me that show Sago's safety history. Now a lot of press reports in the past couple days have mentioned that Sago had more than 200 federal violations last year, as though that's a worrisome number. Actually, Pavlovitch and another former official at MSHA say that number does not trouble them, because they say a lot of those citations were for fairly minor problems. Maybe the mine didn't check fire extinguishers as often as they were supposed to. Maybe they didn't tune up a certain piece of equipment exactly when they were supposed to. The former officials say those are important, but they wouldn't lose sleep over it. On the other hand, the agency's records show that some of Sago's violations were related to the kinds of problems that could potentially cause a disaster, such as failure to have proper ventilation, which could lead to an explosion.

Mr. PAVLOVITCH: Obviously, ventilation violations are very serious in any mines, both to control levels of methane and to control respirable dust.

ZWERDLING: And failure to maintain proper escape routes if there were an explosion.

Mr. PAVLOVITCH: Then that could be a problem with the ability for miners to escape in the event of an emergency.

ZWERDLING: And federal files show that the inspectors cited the mine repeatedly for serious problems. The records show that the mine's managers did correct the problems quickly, often on the same day. But the records also indicate that the managers knew or should have know about some of the problems before the inspectors ever cited them. According to federal rules, that means that Sago's management displayed, quote, "A high degree of negligence," unquote, when it came to the miners' safety.

Maybe that's why the Sago mine has another dubious distinction. Federal records show that it suffered twice the rate of serious injuries as the average mine did since the year 2000. A spokeswoman at MSHA said she couldn't comment on Sago's record. We tried to reach top executives at ICG. That's the company that owns the Sago Mine. They didn't return our phone calls. Company officials have said publicly that they only took over the mine last November, and they say they've been working on improving worker safety. Federal and state officials will likely investigate Sago's safety history as they try to figure out what caused the explosion. Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

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