About eighty to ninety percent of TechnoMine’s readers are not in the USA and/or are not involved in coal mining. Nevertheless, the outlines of the Sago mine story are there like the every present Greek Gods of yore—enough is known and recalled to force you to fear and caution.

This is my outline recollection: coal mining; accident; miscommunication; distraught families; death; politicians & pronouncements; boards of enquiry; thick reports; lawyers & litigation; TV appearances by grieving spouses; a flurry of marketing literature from suppliers and consultants offering solutions to avoid repetition; and then sober analysis.

December 5, 2006 brought the first dose of sober analysis: Improving Mine Safety Technology and Training: Establishing U.S. Global Leadership issued by the Mine Safety and Training Commission. The report includes seventy one recommendations, summarized thus in the cover letter:

  • Better technology in communications, mine rescue training, and escape and protection of miners.
  • More frequent and realistic training focusing on key principles.
  • A broadened and more professional emergency response and mine rescue capability.
  • Development of a culture that supports safe production at the business core.

Another, totally different report compiled by the State of West Virginia was supposed to be published about the same time. Many blogs comment on the reported attribution by the unpublished report of the accident to a massive lightening storm that ignited methane gas in an abandoned part of the mine. Here is one:

“Families were upset when Wooten simply provided them with copies of the thick report, told them lightning caused the disaster, and asked for questions. When families asked questions, they were told the answers were in the report and that they should read it. UMWA spokesman Phil Smith told the Bureau of National Affairs’ Daily Labor Report (subscription required) that the union is “highly skeptical of the lightning theory.…It is just as likely that something else happened.” He noted that none of the investigations have shown the path that lightning took into the mine. If the blast was caused by lightning, there should be new rules requiring miners be evacuated during electrical storms.”

Now from the pages of Coal People magazine at this link comes the story behind Improving Mine Safety Technology and Training: Establishing U.S. Global Leadership. All the scintillating detail about who was in, who was out, and why. I find nothing in this story or in the report behind it that would assure me that lightening will not cause another such accident.

Having worked for years in the nuclear industry, I find the belated awakening of the coal mining industry a sad picture of Johnny-come-lately moving into the 21st century. Wow, somebody even sent me this quote to show how serious the industry is: “Any company that can't keep its employees safe shouldn't be in the mining business. This was echoed at the Second Western Mine Safety & Health Conf. in Mesa, AZ a few weeks ago by Stillwater's CEO who observed ALCOA's attitude towards its managers as being: "if you can't keep your employees from hurting themselves we don't need you as a manager." Better late than never I suppose.

Most encouraging news is that the good old Yankee spirit of making a commercial opportunity out of disaster is still alive and well. (How glad I am that all my eight grandkids are Americans.) Here is the good news:

“GMR is newly formed. A joint venture of Engineering Consulting Services Inc. (mining consulting with internal safety capabilities) and Christensen. Its advisory board includes a former head of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration, former member of the Mine Safety & Health Review Commission (final appeals court, if you will,for federal mine citations/fines).

We will provide a unique, comprehensive, and integrated service to mining companies in the post-Sago (mine disaster) world that includes:

1. Risk assessment;

2. Safety and training oversight; and

3. Crisis avoidance.

In the U.S. the repercussions of the coal mine disasters of 2006 are being felt in all sectors--even aggregates producers are concerned about US Mine Safety & Health Administrations stepped up enforcement activities.

From the largest producers with seemingly ample resources to the medium and small-sized producers independent evaluation with a systems approach will be beneficial. And of course one has to guard against the unforseeable--managing the media etc. should an incident occur (crisis avoidance).

Dr. Grayson, who headed the National Mining Assn.'s independent: Mine Safety Technology and Training Commission (report issued 5 December 2006) will lead GMR's risk assessment effort.”

We wish them consulting luck, commercial success, and many projects each one of which saves the life of a miner (recall that I have written elsewhere about the death of both my grandfathers in mine accidents—so I confess I am not neutral in this wish.)