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Mine Cited 208 Times in '05

A coal mine where 13 miners were trapped after an explosion Monday was cited 208 times for alleged safety violations in 2005, up from just 68 citations the year before.

Federal regulators' allegations against the Sago Mine included failure to dilute coal dust, which can lead to explosions, and failure to properly operate and maintain machinery, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

Ninety-six of the citations were considered "significant and substantial" by inspectors.

An official with the International Coal Group, which has owned the mine since March, said the Labor Department could have closed the mine if it were deemed unsafe.

"We think that we were operating a safe mine. We have no real clue about what triggered this explosion or whatever happened today," said ICG Senior Vice President Gene Kitts.

Records from the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration also show that Sago Mine has had 42 injuries since 2000 that resulted in lost work time.

Its injury rate per hours worked in 2004, the most recent year for such data, was nearly three times the national rate for a mine of its type. Eight injuries were reported that year.

The state Office of Miners' Health Safety & Training, which inspects underground mines four times each year, issued 144 notices of violation at Sago last year, compared to 74 in 2004, officials said.

Kitts said the mine's violations were "not something totally out of the ordinary for this size of operation."

"We recognize that issues such as training and the issues with the regulators needed to be worked on," he said.

The miners were trapped 260 feet below ground after an explosion that may have been sparked by lightning. Rescuers went in to find them Monday after waiting almost 12 agonizing hours for dangerous gases to clear.

Gov. Joe Manchin, when asked about the mine's safety record, said he had not been thoroughly briefed about it.

"We will do a total and thorough evaluation. And whatever has happened, or whatever caused this to happen, will be remedied," he said. "Right now, our main concern is getting these miners out safe."