LIANE HANSEN, host:
In Melville, West Virginia, rescue workers found the bodies of two West Virginia miners yesterday. They had been missing since a conveyor belt caught fire deep underground on Thursday. The deaths of Don Bragg, 33, and Ellery Hatfield, 47, brings to 14 the toll of West Virginia miners killed in accidents this year. Twelve miners died earlier this month in an explosion at the Sago Mine.
Tomorrow on Capitol Hill, Senators will hold a hearing on mine safety, focused mostly on the Sago accident.
Federal investigators entered the Sago Mine this weekend for the first time since the accident, but have not yet made it into the deepest part of the mine to investigate what caused the explosion. Federal documents suggest that the Sago Mine has a record of serious safety violations.
NPR's Daniel Zwerdling has been looking into the fine print of those violations.
DANIEL ZWERDLING reporting:
Federal inspectors shut down parts of the mine 15 times last year; they said safety problems were that serious. But if you want to understand the details of how bad the problems were, just read the actual citations that the inspectors typed up and gave to Sago's managers. They're on the Internet. Officials at the Mine Safety and Health Administration posted the most serious violations recently on their website.
Tony Oppegard has already read the fine print. He spent a lot of his career investigating unsafe mines. Until last year he was the chief prosecutor in Kentucky for mine safety cases. Before that, he was a top aide at the federal mine agency in Washington, which people call MSHA. Oppegard says the MSHA documents suggest that Sago was a dangerous mine and that government inspectors were worrying about it months before the explosion.
Mr. TONY OPPEGARD (U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration): I would say that it's indicative of an operator who wasn't going to let safety stand in the way of production.
ZWERDLING: Oppegard and other mining specialists say nobody will know what actually caused the explosion until after a long investigation. But the MSHA documents reveal potential clues.
For instance, the documents show that last July some rock fell in the mine and hurt a miner pretty badly. The MSHA inspector issued one of the most serious kinds of violations possible; it's called a 104D. The law says you give it if the safety problem was caused by an unwarrantable failure, which means there's no justification for it, and -- quote --'if it is determined that the mine operator has engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence' -- unquote. The inspector thought the violation was so serious that he shut down part of the mine.
But only one month later there was an even more serious accident from falling rock. This time a huge rock fell from a corner of the mine's roof and had broke a miner's back. The inspector issued another serious violation.
But when he came back five days later, he charged that the mine still had not bothered to fix its crumbling roof. He wrote that the roof was cracking all over the place and there were lots of loose rocks that looked -- quote -- 'as if they will fall without warning' -- unquote. So, the inspector shut down part of the mine again. He wrote that after two serious accidents in recent weeks -- quote -- 'mine management should have been on a heightened state of alert for the listed conditions. The listed conditions were obvious and should have been detected and corrected' -- unquote.
Federal officials told Sago's managers, you must fix the mine's roof and install all kinds of braces to make it stronger.
An MSHA official who said he's not allowed to talk, told me that's been the problem at Sago all along. The company's owners wouldn't fix safety problems unless the government ordered them to do it.
Executives at the company that owns Sago, ICG, would not give an interview, but they sent me an email saying they're contesting just about all the serious violations.
Tony Oppegard and other Safety Specialists say investigators should look closely at that history when they try to figure out what caused the explosion at Sago on January 2.
Preliminary reports suggest that the explosion took place in part of the mine that had been sealed off, which might have meant that explosive gas like methane was building up in that area. Oppegard says other mines have had explosions when parts of the roof caved in because the falling rocks caused sparks, which then ignited the gases. He says it might have happened at Sago.
Mr. OPPEGARD: It also, would not be surprising to find that a massive roof fall had set off that methane in the sealed area.
ZWERDLING: So, if you were still at MSHA, would you see this pattern of roof violations at Sago last year as a potential warning flag?
Mr. OPPEGARD: Yes.
ZWERDLING: Mine safety specialists say they hope the Congressional Committee will focus on another important issue when it begins hearings tomorrow: why didn't government officials prosecute the people who ran Sago, when they had such a troubled safety record?
Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.