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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 21:52 GMT
US mining safety under scrutiny
By Matthew Davis
BBC News, Washington

The deadliest coal-mining accident in the United States for more than four years has sparked calls for an urgent review of how safety regulations are enforced.

Sago mine
Sago mine was accused of 208 alleged safety violations last year

The USA averages around 30 mining deaths per year - compared to some 8,000 in China - and its safety record has been steadily improving over the past few decades.

But the case of Sago mine - where 12 miners died following an explosion on Monday - has raised concerns over the effectiveness of the penalties for violations of safety laws.

Every mine in the US has at least four mandatory inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration each year.

The MSHA can impose fines ranging from $60 for minor, uncorrected safety breaches to $60,000 for the most serious, life-threatening offences.

Sago mine - bought by International Coal Group in November - was cited for 208, mostly minor, alleged safety violations last year, according to federal records.

The fact that the Sago Mine had a long history of serious safety violations demands that Congress learn why more wasn't done to keep these workers safe
Rep. George Miller (D)

It has so far been assessed for fines of just $24,000 for the lapses - which include multiple citations for failing to fully secure the mine against parts of the roof collapsing, and for inadequate ventilation.

"One might expect massive penalty assessments under federal law for such a dismal record," Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House committee overseeing labour issues, wrote to committee chairman John Boehner.

"The fact that the Sago Mine had a long history of serious safety violations demands that Congress learn why more wasn't done to keep these workers safe," Mr Miller added.

He said the committee should also look into whether the appointment of officials with close ties to the mining industry to the industry watchdog had resulted in a rollback in safety regulations.

Hiring shortages

The deaths in West Virginia have been a stark reminder of how dangerous an operation coal mining can be.

IN GRAPHICS
Portion of infographic illustrating Sago mine blast and rescue attempts

It was the worst disaster to hit the industry since 13 people were killed in an explosion at a mine in Brookwood, Alabama in 2001.

Technology and automation have greatly reduced mine deaths overall in the US. There were 133 mining deaths in 1980, and only 22 last year.

But greater demand for coal coupled with hiring shortages and the reopening of older mines have resulted in more than 300 deaths since 2000.

The White House has been swift to defend the administration's record on mine safety rules, saying increased safety has been a priority.

The administration had called for a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the MSHA rules, but Congress had not acted on these proposals, press secretary Scott McClellan said.

Fault total 'high'

Federal investigators have yet to explain what caused the explosion at Sago mine.

But coal mine explosions are typically caused by build-ups of naturally occurring methane gas or highly combustible coal dust in the air.

The MSHA has defended the oversight of the Sago mine. The administration spent 744 hours inspecting the facility last year, an 84% increase over the year before.

An MSHA spokeswoman told the BBC the number of violations at Sago was "high, but not extraordinary" for a mine of its size.

All but three of the faults cited had been corrected, she said.

The National Mining Association, an industry group, says that the mining industry is one of the safest in the US, with a lower rate of non-fatal injuries and illnesses per 100 employees than the agriculture, construction or retail trades.

There are roughly 1,600 coal plants (units) in the US, and 1,100 manufacturing plants that use coal, but mining accounted for less than one percent of US fatal injuries in 2004, the NSA said.

Sago mine, where 12 miners lost their lives, is located in Appalachian coal country.

According to some commentators, coal mining in some regions of the Appalachia is a dangerous industry. The easy coal has already been mined and what is left can be difficult to extract.

The Sago disaster was the deadliest mining accident in West Virginia since November 1968, when 78 men - including the uncle of state Governor Joe Manchin, died in an explosion at a mine elsewhere in Upshur County.




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