Mine Company: Lightning Caused Deadly Blast

After its own investigation, the owners of a West Virginia coal mine where 12 miners died announced that lightning caused the deadly explosion early this year. This declaration allows the company to restart production at Sago Mine on Wednesday. State and federal officials continue their investigations. Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports.

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On Wednesdays our business report focuses on the workplace. We begin with mine safety.

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MONTAGNE: The owners of a West Virginia Coal mine say lightning caused the explosion last January that killed 12 men. The announcement comes before state or federal officials have finished their probes. But as Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting reports, it sets the stage for production to restart at the mine today.

DAN HEYMAN (Reporter, West Virginia Public Broadcasting): International Coal Group or ICG, which owns the Sego Mine, yesterday released the conclusions of its own investigation into the mine accident. ICG says lightening set of methane in a closed section of the mine. Company officials were unavailable for comment, because they were meeting with the families of the dead miners.

State and federal regulators have not released their findings on the accident, and state officials say ICG is jumping the gun with its report.

Mr. DAVIT McATEER (State's Lead Investigator, Sago Mine Explosion): I think it's unfortunate, I think it's premature for this company, or anybody to draw a conclusion at this point.

HEYMAN: Davit McAteer is leading the states investigation into the Sago disaster. Investigators have said for years that lightening can cause mine explosions and weather monitors reported that a powerful strike near the mine at the time of the blast. McAteer says he's not willing to rule that out. But he says there are still unanswered questions about the theory.

Mr. McATEER: We have not gotten to the conclusions about whether the lightening strike is in fact involved. Now if in fact a lightening strike occurs, how it gets from the surface to 250 underground and it ignites.

HEYMAN: Assigning blame for the explosion to and act of God such as lightening helps ICG clear the way for production to restart at the troubled mine. Mine safety regulators have said much of Sego could reopen late last week. But the company had held off for a few days.

Bill Raney, with the industry-funded West Virginia Coal Association describes that as being careful and deliberate.

Mr. BILL RANEY (West Virginia Coal Association): The industry is certainly cautious about going back to work and they're wanting to be sure that everything is right before they do that. And a big part of being right is making certain that everyone that's part of the mine family understands what the company found in their investigation.

HEYMAN: Federal mine safety officials will only say their investigation continues.

For NPR News I'm Dan Heyman in Charleston, West Virginia.

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