WASHINGTON (AP) _ Cigarette butts were found and a methane gas monitor may have been disabled in a Virginia coal mine that was the site of a deadly explosion earlier this month, the Labor Department said Tuesday.
″It just takes no logic at all to know you shouldn’t smoke in a mine,″ Assistant Labor Secretary Bill Tattersall said after announcing the findings at a news conference.
Officials were quick to say they had not linked the cigarette butts or the damaged methane monitor directly to the underground explosion, in which eight miners were killed 45 minutes before their shift was to end. The investigation into the accident is continuing and it is highly unusual for federal officials to comment on such matters with an inquiry in progress.
But Tattersall said the ″critical nature″ of the early findings necessitated breaking with usual procedures. He said federal officials also wanted to send a warning to other mine operators and workers.
″This is a rule that to be broken we don’t take very lightly,″ he said. ″This is very, very bad.″
He said the Labor Department would be ″looking at the mining industry very closely″ as a result of the findings.
Robert Kyle, vice president of Southmountain Coal, would not comment on Tattersall’s announcement. ″The investigation is not complete,″ Kyle said.
The explosion in Southmountain Coal Co.’s No. 3 mine near Norton, Va., was Virginia’s worst mining disaster in 32 years. Crews had to wait five days before removing the eight bodies from the shaft because of high methane levels.
The eight miners were at work stations about a mile underground when the explosions occurred. One miner closer to the entrance managed to crawl to safety.
Mines are required to have operable methane nmonitors to signal potentially dangerous buildups of highly volatile gas. The monitors automatically shut off mining equipment at dangerous methane levels.
Tattersall said investigators found that the methane monitor in the Norton mine ″may have been tampered with and made inoperative.″
He said the monitor’s sensing device had been ″blocked,″ showing ″disregard for the lives of miners.″
He would not speculate why the monitor may have been tampered with except to say if the device renders equipment inoperable, ″you can’t mine coal.″
Tattersall said mine operators also are required to pat search workers and check belongings for cigarettes. Both the company and individual can be held liable if cigarettes are carried into the mine. Smoking in a mine is a felony.
He said Labor Department investigators, who inspect mines at least four times a year, had checked for compliance with the regulations on cigarettes when they last inspected the Norton mine in October.