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Reports show Sago Mine had past troubles

By Tom Foreman
CNN Washington Bureau

Mining executive Ben Hatfield makes the grim announcement that only one miner survived.


Health and Safety at Work
Disasters and Accidents
West Virginia

(CNN) -- Federal reports show the number of safety violations at the Sago Mine rose rapidly over the past two years, and in 2005 inspectors called 96 of them "serious and substantial."

Add reports of 11 roof collapses in the past six months, and a former top federal official for mine safety says any mine operator should see a red flag.

"That's a signal to you that says, 'You better do something at this workplace, before something bad happens,' " Davitt McAteer said.

McAteer, now a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, has spent most of the past 40 years involved with mine safety issues, even helping to shape many of the national policies on this front. He argues that mining is a uniquely complex, demanding and potentially dangerous profession.

"As opposed to other industries," he says, "in mining, small problems mount up quickly and catastrophically."

The Sago Mine accident comes on the heels of seismic shifts in the mining business. In the 1990's, with coal prices low, industry experts said many small mines cut back production, went bankrupt or shut down. In the case of Sago, the industry slump opened the door for billionaire investor Wilbur Ross.

Ross made headlines and a fortune buying up failing steel companies in the past, and now his International Coal Group is doing the same thing in the mining trade.

By purchasing financially wounded companies, Ross's relatively new ICG has taken control of a substantial portion of the nation's coal reserves. ICG took over Sago only in mid November, and company officials say they have already corrected many of the safety problems cited in past reports.

In the tense hours of waiting and searching, however, that was not a subject company executives wanted to discuss.

"We're not going to get into the violation history or finger pointing," said Ben Hatfield, CEO of International Coal Group. "That's in no one's interest at this point."

Federal safety records indicate the coal business has grown safer in recent years. Ten years ago, coal mines were claiming around 45 lives every year. Now the numbers hover around half that amount.

Injuries are down, too, even as production rises. Coal industry analysts say better technology has helped make the work safer; so have more concerted efforts throughout the industry to emphasize safety.

The National Mining Association represents many mining companies, although not the International Coal Group, and officials at the mining association say the Sago safety citations are not particularly unusual.

"When I looked at it generally," the association's Bruce Watzman said, "I didn't see anything that caught my attention as being so out of the ordinary. Some were paperwork errors, some reporting errors; (there were) a lot of violations but many were not significant to really impact miners' safety."

Watzman argues that while every safety violation should be taken seriously, many may involve lower level problems that could not reasonably be expected to present an imminent danger.

Davitt McAteer says it is too early to know who, if anyone, should bear responsibility in this accident. But he has a word of caution about the booming coal trade in general, and any company that might seek too much gold too fast from the black rock.

"We've seen historically, the mine companies that operate on the margins and try to push all the costs down and the (profit) margins up in the short run tend to have tremendous safety problems."

CNN's Jim Spellman contributed to this report.

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