Friday, March 17, 2006

Sago: Mother Nature's Vengeance?

You'll be happy to know that the International Coal Group announced yesterday that its 2005 income was $31.8 million, compared with a 2004 loss of $102.4 million. The only bad news was that damn coal mine explosion that killed 12 of their employees and seriously injured one. ICG President Ben Hatfield assured stockholders that "This tragedy will always remain in our memories, but we must do more than just remember the good people that died and were injured. We must learn lessons from this accident that will make coal miners safer in years to come."

One of the things that will make coal miners safer will apparently be praying to Mother Nature for mercy. On Tuesday, ICG released the results of its investigation into the disaster. The first "key finding" was that the explosion was ignited by lighting and fueled by methane that had naturally accumulated in an abandoned area of the mine that had been recently sealed."

Curse that Mother Nature! She not only supplied the fuel, but also the ignition source. Oh, and don't forget the oxygen. All three sides of the fire triangle.

The evidence: “unusual streaks” on the mine roof where company officials believe an electrical charge from the lightning may have entered the mine. But the press release also states that the investigators can't say how the lighting got into the mine. In addition, “The testing of these unusual features has not been completed to determine if it was created by the passage of electrical energy from lightning.”

The Mineworkers union was not amused. Cecil E. Roberts, International President of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) called the the ICG's findings "unprecedented, reckless and premature."
This action does a disservice to the families of those who were killed at Sago,” Roberts said. “ICG even acknowledges that it doesn’t know how an electrical charge could have traveled from the surface to the mine and ignited the explosion. To publicize their unfounded conclusion now, well before the official investigation by federal and state experts is finished, is extremely reckless
Mineworkers safety experts say this is the first time in their memory that a company has released a report before MSHA's releases its report.

Roberts says the intent is clear:
“I believe it’s fair to ask why ICG is leaping to this conclusion and publicizing its version now,” Roberts said. “ICG is essentially saying this was an act of God, and we all know you can’t sue God. One can make a case that this announcement is more about future litigation defense purposes that it is about actually shining a light of truth on what really happened.
The Charleston Gazette's Ken Ward also points out that even if lightning did spark the explosion,
previous government reports have indicated that there are ways to reduce the chance of a lightning strike causing a mine explosion.

For example, state investigators have said ICG was taking methane readings from inside the sealed-off area of the mine.

Data from those tests could have hinted that methane was building up to dangerous levels, giving the company a chance to vent the area. Information about readings prior to the blast has not been released.
And the AFL-CIO reports that
If the lightning did travel to the sealed area, it could only ignite methane behind the seals if the methane levels had not stabilized, as they should have if the area was properly sealed, say mine safety experts.

Generally speaking, methane is only explosive when it makes up between 5 and 15 percent of the atmosphere. Above that level, it becomes inert as it replaces oxygen—which is needed to fuel an explosion. Proper sealing of a worked-out area should bring the methane levels to the non-explosive point. There are reports the Sago sealing was done about a month before the blast.
Yes, although you might not know it from ICG's press releases, but one of the most interesting and important aspects of the history of the last several thousand years is man's ability to overcome the hazards created by Mother Nature.