Nearly half of the 208 safety citations levied in 2005 against the Sago coal mine where 12 men died this week were "serious and substantial."
Federal inspectors found 20 dangerous roof-falls, 14 power wire insulation problems, and three cases of inadequate ventilation plans, among the 96 major violations.
Sago's "S&S" violations, which rose fourfold in 2005 over 2004, form a pattern that worries safety experts, who say it raises serious questions about mine management - and the efficacy of government inspections.
Despite major safety strides in recent decades, mining remains one of the nation's most dangerous jobs. And it's not unusual for mines to be cited for violations of the 1977 Mine Safety Act. But Sago's record, some say, should have raised red flags.
"If you have a widespread practice of S&S violations over an extended period of time like we have here, it suggests that you've got much more serious problems than just paperwork violations," says J. Davitt McAteer, a former official in the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
During the last quarter of 2005, for instance, federal inspectors at Sago cited or ordered the company to fix 50 safety violations - 19 of them serious and substantial. As a result, the company was fined $24,374 last year. It also recorded 39 accidents in 2005, 16 with injuries requiring days away from work.
Inspectors also noted lesser violations such as electrical equipment maintenance, accumulations of coal dust, inadequate fresh air ventilation of the coal-face, and too few methane monitors. (It is still not known what caused the explosion that trapped and killed the miners.)
Taken separately, the number of violations and the variety of issues involved are not particularly troubling, says Mr. Mc-Ateer. Indeed, accumulations of coal dust and electrical and ventilation problems are not unusual in coal mines. But taken "as a package," three issues stick out about the violations, McAteer says:
• The number is on the high side for a coal mine of that size.
• A high proportion are substantial.
• The 2005 total was more than triple the 68 tallied in 2004.
Despite this record, the entire mine was never ordered closed for a safety overhaul.
"I've seen other mines with as many or nearly as many violations," McAteer says. "But these are substantial ventilation, roof control, and emergency escape violations. If you look at the direction [Sago is] going, you see both federal and state numbers increasing."
International Coal Group, a private company based in Ashland, Ky., bought the Sago mine from Anker West Virginia Mining Company last year. An ICG spokesperson reserved comment for company officials who were unavailable at press time. But on Monday - before news came that the miners had died - an ICG vice president told reporters that the company had recorded an 80 percent improvement in safety from earlier in the year. "We think we're operating a safe mine."
Although federal inspectors have the legal right to close a mine for safety reasons - and often do close sections - it can be difficult to close a mine outright. Courts have been reluctant to support such actions by the government, even when there are a large number of violations, McAteer says.
Calls Wednesday to MSHA's Washington headquarters seeking comment on the significance of the Sago mine violations went unreturned. On Wednesday, government officials began an investigation.
"The purpose of MSHA's investigation is to determine what caused the explosion and whether any safety and health standards were violated," said David Dye, MSHA's acting assistant secretary. "Then we can take effective action to prevent such tragedies in the future."
But it will take a lot of investigating to satisfy residents and miners in the area. Several said there had been doubts about the mine's safety long before the explosion.
Joe McGowan, a longtime Buckhannon, W.Va., resident who's worked coal mines, oil and gas fields, and timber jobs in the past, says he spoke with his friend Junior Hamner, who died in the explosion, just two weeks ago about the dangers. "He said it's nothing but a walking time bomb," says Mr. McGowan, in a measured drawl. "He told me, 'They're going to kill us all.' "
McGowan, like many former miners in these parts, is skeptical of the safety record of "scab," or nonunion mines, where employees have less recourse to complain about oversights. The Sago Mine, he says, was notorious for its large buildups of methane, one reason the mine had changed hands frequently in the past and a previous mine at the site had been abandoned.
The high incidence of injuries and the large number of safety violations worried him too. "The companies don't want to spend the money on safety."
Working in the mines, one of the few ways to make a good living in West Virginia, is inherently dangerous, McGowan notes. "But there's something about coal miners, they have no fear. These people have four or five generations of mining. They know the business and then they go back in."