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Mourning the Miners

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Mourning the miners and challenging the system that failed them and their families.

A tragedy first in the explosion, then in the miscommunication that followed with inaccurate reports of the trapped miners having been found alive.

Great joy turned to deep sorrow and rage Wednesday morning when mining families here were told inaccurately that 12 of the 13 miners trapped in a coal mine were alive only to be informed, hours later, that they were in fact dead.

The first joyous announcement, of a “miracle,” was the result of a “miscommunication,” a mining company official said. The second tragic announcement, from the same official, came at roughly 2:00 a.m., interrupting and then silencing the church bells, the whoops of joy and the preparations for reunion with loved ones, who they thought had somehow escaped death 13,000 feet into the earth.

While this cruel twist of fate with inaccurate information is receiving much of the attention, hopefully there’ll be just as much a level of scrutiny as what caused the coal mine collapse in the first place.

“They told us our loved ones would be out in an hour and on their way over,” said Ann Meredith, whose father was in the mine. “This mine is unfit. They should shut it down.”

The Sago Mining Company has had considerable safety violations with a documented pattern over the past few years.

Time and again over the past four years, federal mining inspectors documented the same litany of problems at central West Virginia’s Sago Mine: mine roofs that tended to collapse without warning. Faulty or inadequate tunnel supports. A dangerous buildup of flammable coal dust.

Yesterday, the mine’s safety record came into sharp focus as officials searched for explanations for Monday’s underground explosion. That record, as reflected in dozens of federal inspection reports, shows a succession of operators struggling to overcome serious, long-standing safety problems, some of which could be part of the investigation into the cause of the explosion that trapped 13 miners.

In the past two years, the mine was cited 273 times for safety violations, of which about a third were classified as “significant and substantial,” according to documents compiled by the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Many were for problems that could contribute to accidental explosions or the collapse of mine tunnels, records show.

In addition, 16 violations logged in the past eight months were listed as “unwarrantable failures,” a designation reserved for serious safety infractions for which the operator had either already been warned, or which showed “indifference or extreme lack of care,” said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA senior adviser.

“That is a very high number, and it is usually indicative of a very poor safety record,” Oppegard said.

Seems as if the dynamic here has been until an accident happens and lives are lost, no action or meaningful penalty is enacted to address and avoid such a disaster.

Much the same as a filthy, roach infested restaurant not being closed down until someone gets sick or worse, the poor safety standards and pattern that has been documented in this case is appalling.

With all the talk of investigations (Plame, Surveillance Gate) over the past few months over matters not involving life and death situations such as has occurred in the Sago Mine incident, let’s hope there is a swift investigation of this, as well as other mines, which may be ticking time bombs.