The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 2           January 16, 2006  
Bosses’ profit drive killed
coal miners in W. Virginia
Trapped after explosion, 12 of 13 miners die
(lead article)
TALLMANSVILLE, West Virginia, January 4—Twelve coal miners were confirmed dead in the Sago Mine here by the early morning hours today. A 13th miner, 27-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., who had been trapped with his co-workers, survived and is now hospitalized in critical condition. The miners had been trapped 260 feet below the surface when an explosion occurred two days earlier as they were entering the mine to begin their shift.

This nonunion mine owned by the International Coal Group (ICG) has a long record of safety violations, having been cited 273 times over the past two years—208 of these in 2005, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). These included a number of roof collapses, inadequate roof supports, and dangerous buildups of flammable coal dust.

“Safety needs to be in the workers’ hand,” Ed Lipscond, an over-the-road trucker from Flemington, West Virginia, told the Militant January 3 outside the Sago Mine. “With the violations the company got, I can’t figure out why they didn’t shut the mine down. I’ve got four friends in there, and I came out here to support them and my community. These are the best paying jobs around. You can’t raise a family on $6 an hour. When you don’t have a union and you stand up for yourself, they get rid of you. We need to be united with a union to back us up and take up for us.”

Families of the miners trapped underground were abused further by company and government officials after word spread among relatives of the trapped men gathered at a church late last night that through a “miracle” 12 of the 13 trapped miners had been found alive. The London Guardian reported that Joe Thornton, a state official, “told reporters shortly after midnight that the rescued miners were being examined and would be taken to local hospitals.” The media nationwide immediately picked up this misinformation. It was splashed on lead headlines of many dailies this morning. But the “miracle” was a lie. Three hours later, ICG CEO Ben Hatfield told the miners’ families, “There had been a lack of communication…and only one survived,” said John Groves, whose brother Jerry was one of those killed.

“There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door,” Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms, told the media about Hatfield’s announcement.

“They told us our loved ones would be out in an hour and on their way over,” Ann Meredith, whose father died in the mine, told the press. “This mine is unfit. They should shut it down.”

To protect themselves from the anticipated outrage of miners’ relatives, ICG officials, prior to retracting this lie, made sure state troopers and a SWAT team were outside the church where the miners’ families were.

John Bennett, whose father was one of the miners killed, told the media his father would “tell me how unsafe the mine is.” Problems at the mine had been “going on for months…and they still send men in,” he said, adding that if the mine owner had allowed workers to unionize the violations wouldn’t have happened, reported MSNBC.

The Sago Mine, which has 145 employees, was operated by Anker West Virginia Mining Co. until November when ICG completed its purchase. The injury rate at this mine in 2004 was three times that of similar-sized underground mines nationwide, said the Charleston Gazette. MSHA documents show that the average number of working days lost since 2000 because of accidents at Sago was nearly double the national average.

After its most recent inspections between October and December 2005, MSHA issued 46 citations for safety violations. Immediately after the explosion at the Sago Mine, Eugene Kitts, a company vice president for mining, insisted that these citations were all minor. “We addressed them,” he told the Washington Post. However, 18 of these violations were listed as “significant and substantial.” These included inadequate safeguards against the collapse of the mine roof and inadequate ventilation to guard against the buildup of deadly gases. During the last six months of 2005, the Sago Mine reported a dozen roof falls, according to MSHA records.

After 13 coal miners were killed as a result of two explosions at a Jim Walter Resources mine in Brookwood, Alabama, in 2001, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) president Cecil Roberts said the union had information on hand that the first explosion occurred when a roof fall hit a scoop battery charger, creating a spark that ignited the methane gas.

Fines for safety citations issued against the Sago Mine bosses came to just $24,155 for 2005, with some $14,500 of this paid by the company.

Nationwide, 149 miners were killed in coal mines between 2001 and 2005, with 22 killed last year. But these figures only tell part of the story. In the first nine months of 2005, nearly 3,800 coal miners were injured on the job, according to MSHA; 470 of these were contract workers.

Workers in the area say there are no union mines in Upshur County, where the Sago Mine is located. ICG owns two other mines in the area—Spruce and Sycamore #2—both nonunion. In fact, the company’s web site brags that ICG owns “union-free” facilities.

“That whole area used to be union. Mine 105 and Mine 108 were owned by Bethlehem Steel,” said Wally Hood, a member of UMWA Local 1949 in Morgantown, West Virginia. “Then the union took more and more concession contracts. It weakened the workers and the union. They were closed down in 1986.”

In the early 1980s the Sago Mine was owned by Badger Coal and was organized by the UMWA.

“If it’d been a union mine this never would have happened,” Earl Casto, a former miner whose cousin Junior Hamner died at Sago Mine, told ABC News. “This should make all coal miners working open their eyes.”

Ryan Scott is a coal miner in Greene County, Pennsylvania. Brian Williams contributed to this article.
Related articles:
Safety v. profits in the mines  
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