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   Vol. 70/No. 3           January 23, 2006  
Unionize the mines!
Workers respond to W. Virginia mine disaster
(lead article)
SAGO, West Virginia—The death of 12 people after an explosion in the nonunion Sago Mine here January 2 has sparked discussion among working people in the coal mining communities of this state about company violations of safety, the culpability of the International Coal Group (ICG)—the mine’s owner—for the deaths, and the need to unionize the mines. On January 10 another coal miner was killed in Pike County, Kentucky, when a section of the roof collapsed at Maverick Mining Co.

Jimmy Burgoyne, 24, is a general inside laborer and member of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 1501 at the Consolidated Coal Robinson Run mine—the nearest union mine to Sago. He previously worked at the ICG-owned Sycamore #1 mine. “Some old guys who have worked only at Robinson Run think the mine is unsafe. I have worked at both union and nonunion mines,” he said January 6. “I think it is safer here. A union mine tends to follow the guidelines better.”

Among those killed at Sago were 11 workers and a mine section foreman. One survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., who was trapped with his co-workers after the blast, remains hospitalized in critical condition.

Notes left by one miner, Jim Bennett, 61, a shuttle car operator with 25 years of mining experience, indicates that he and others huddled in a section of the mine behind a plastic curtain they erected to keep out high levels of carbon monoxide were alive at least 10 hours after the explosion.

The company waited two hours before informing the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) of the blast, delaying the assembling of a rescue team. The first crew arrived seven hours after the blast but couldn’t enter the mine until a backup crew arrived four hours later. It took nearly 42 hours after the explosion for the men to be found.

To reduce costs, mining companies have been cutting back on the rapid availability of rescue crews. By law, every coal mine in the United States must have at least two mine rescue crews, noted the January 8 Charleston Gazette. In 2004, however, only one rescue team for every four underground coal mines nationwide was at hand, according to MSHA. The Sago Mine, like many other small mines, was contracting this operation out.

“We’re at the point where enough’s enough,” Christina Colombo, 31, a middle-school teacher in the mining community of Philippi, West Virginia, told the Militant. “Things come down the hardest on the working class. The people who take care of and build our society are not the ones taken care of.”

According to Dennis O’Dell, the UMWA administrator for health and safety, the seal that blew out of the abandoned section of the mine where the explosion took place may have been made of plastic foam, reported the January 7 Clarksburg Exponent-Telegram. While plastic foam blocks were approved for use in mine seals a few years ago, they are not as effective as concrete blocks. “The material can catch fire, where cement or concrete cannot,” O’Dell told the media. “And they can blow out easier.”

In 2005 the Sago Mine was cited for 208 federal safety violations, but only 18 of those resulted in parts of the mine being shut down while repairs were made, the Dominion Post reported. Twenty roof collapses occurred at the Sago Mine last year. Fines imposed by MSHA for many of these violations range from about $70 to $247 for the most serious ones—pocket change for the coal bosses.

MSHA, which is required by law to inspect underground coal mines at least four times a year, had its budget cut by $4.9 million for 2006, and the agency has eliminated 170 jobs.

Because of a vacation day Sago miner Tom Watson, 56, was not underground at the time of the explosion. In an interview with the January 8 Charleston Gazette he commented on ICG’s takeover of the mine last year. “When they took over everybody said, ‘That’s a bad coal mine.’ We had water and bad top. And mud up to your knees.” Watson, who has worked in coal for 28 years, was a union miner until 1985, around the time the bosses succeeded in eliminating the UMWA from these area mines.

Derek Bragg, 25, is a roof bolter at the Robinson Run mine. He described to Militant reporters prior to going in for his shift January 6 his previous experience working at the ICG-owned nonunion Sycamore #2 mine in the area. “Conditions were horrible,” he said. “Being in the UMWA is very important. If we see something not safe, the union backs us up. At nonunion mines, I know from experience you do it or lose your job. You have nothing to back you up.”

MSHA and the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training have begun investigations into the Sago Mine explosion, which is expected to take months. The U.S. Senate will also conduct hearings starting in mid-January. The mine remains closed for now. The Sago Mine explosion is a “travesty because so many violations went on in the mine prior to it and the miners are nonunion. They’re actually living on a razor blade,” said Richard Fuller, 54, who has worked 35 years in numerous union-organized coal mines and currently does belt maintenance at Robinson Run. “There should be more of us union coal miners standing up and speaking out against these atrocities going on in the coal mines.”

Commenting on MSHA’s role, Fuller added, “As long as no one is dying they’re content to go through the motions. The only time they do something is when someone dies. They should do something before, not after.”

Maura DeLuca in Pittsburgh contributed to this article.
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