BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – The mine where a dozen men died should be sufficiently vented of toxic gases in four to seven days, allowing investigators to enter for the first time since the disaster, company officials said.
International Coal Group Inc.'s chief executive defended the Sago Mine as a "safe operation" Wednesday, one day after the federal mine safety officials released documents showing that 17 of the 208 alleged safety violations at the mine in 2005 were for serious problems.
Company officials "have heard nothing in the course of all this debate about the safety violations that even remotely connects" with any possible cause of the explosion," chief executive Ben Hatfield said.
Before the explosion, the company rebuilt two miles of primary escapeway, upgraded the mine's rail transportation system and implemented employee safety training that exceeded legal requirements, Hatfield said.
The 208 violations — a number higher than normal for a mine of its size — were up from just 68 citations the year before. The mine's injury rate for employees per hours worked of 17.4 in 2005 was nearly three times higher than the national average rate of 6.54.
Dennis O'Dell, the administrator of occupational health and safety for the United Mine Workers of America, said federal officials were cracking down on mistakes made at Sago.
"I think they were trying to go in the right direction," he said. "They were writing some pretty serious violations at that mine. ... That mine was headed for closure."
ICG has said it inherited many of the mine's safety problems from its former owner and had been working to correct the violations. ICG formally took control of the former Anker Energy mine in November, but started work there as management consultants in June, Hatfield said.
Meanwhile, the sole survivor of the Jan. 2 explosion, Randal McCloy Jr., remained in critical condition Wednesday. Doctors don't seem concerned that the 26-year-old hasn't fully awakened yet and say it could be a lengthy, gradual process.
Officials have said the deadly explosion likely occurred in an area of the mine that was sealed in December. While in the mine, rescue workers found that the mine seals — which were to be checked weekly — had been "blown toward the surface," Ray McKinney, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety and health, said Wednesday in Washington.
Hatfield acknowledged most of the violations came in the second half of 2005, but said that was a result of a 31 percent increase in the number of "inspection days" by MSHA officials. Robert Friend, MSHA's acting deputy assistant secretary of labor, said there was an 84 percent increase in MSHA's inspection hours at the mine from 2004 to 2005.
"We believe the high number of violations is attributable to a significant increase in enforcement standards by the MSHA inspectors that examined this mine virtually every day," Hatfield said.
Ronald Grall, a 40-year veteran of coal mining who worked at the Sago mine for four months before the accident, backed up his employer, saying safety was getting better.
"They have made vast improvements in the ventilation since I've been here," said Grall, an inspector of the mine's air intake system, escape passageways and water pumps. "This company, ICG, they really go safety first."