PRICE, Utah — For generations, coal has been the lifeblood of
this mineral-rich stretch of eastern Utah. Mining families proudly recall all
the years they toiled underground. Supply companies line the town streets. Above
the road that winds toward the mines, a soot-smudged miner peers out from a
billboard with the slogan “Coal = Jobs.”
But recently, fear has settled in. The state’s oldest coal-fired power plant,
tucked among the canyons near town, is set to close, a result of new, stricter
federal pollution regulations.
As energy companies tack away from coal, toward cleaner, cheaper natural gas,
people here have grown increasingly afraid that their community may soon slip
away. Dozens of workers at the facility here, the Carbon Power Plant, have
learned that they must retire early or seek other jobs. Local trucking and
equipment outfits are preparing to take business elsewhere.
“There are a lot of people worried,” said Kyle Davis, who has been employed at
the plant since he was 18.
Mr. Davis, 56, worked his way up from sweeping floors to managing operations at
the plant, whose furnaces have been burning since 1954.
“I would have liked to be here for another five years,” he said. “I’m too young
But Rocky Mountain Power, the utility that operates the plant, has determined
that it would be too expensive to retrofit the aging plant to meet new federal
standards on mercury emissions. The plant is scheduled to be shut by April 2015.
“We had been working for the better part of three years, testing compliance
strategies,” said David Eskelsen, a spokesman for the utility. “None of the ones
we investigated really would produce the results that would meet the
For the last several years, coal plants have been shutting down across the
country, driven by tougher environmental regulations, flattening electricity
demand and a move by utilities toward natural gas.
This month, the board of directors of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the
country’s largest public power utility, voted to shut eight coal-powered plants
in Alabama and Kentucky and partly replace them with gas-fired power. Since
2010, more than 150 coal plants have been closed or scheduled for retirement.
The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that the stricter emissions
regulations for the plants will result in billions of dollars in related health
savings, and will have a sweeping impact on air quality.
In recent weeks, the agency held 11 “listening sessions” around the country in
advance of proposing additional rules for carbon dioxide emissions.
“Coal plants are the single largest source of dangerous carbon pollution in the
United States, and we have ready alternatives like wind and solar to replace
them,” said Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign,
which wants to shut all of the nation’s coal plants.
“We have a choice,” he said, “which in most cases is cheaper and doesn’t have
any of the pollution.”
Coal’s downward turn has hit Appalachia hardest, but the effects of the
transition toward other energy sources has started to ripple westward.
Mr. Eskelsen said Rocky Mountain Power would place some of the 70 Carbon
facility employees at its two other Utah coal plants. Other workers will take
early retirement or look for different jobs.
Still, the notion that this pocket of Utah, where Greek, Italian and Mexican
immigrants came to mine coal more than a century ago, could survive without it,
is hard for people here to comprehend.
“The attack on coal is so broad-reaching in our little community,” said Casey
Hopes, a Carbon County commissioner, whose grandfather was a coal miner. “The
power plants, the mines — they support so many smaller businesses. We don’t have
Like others in Price, Mr. Hopes voiced frustration with the Obama
administration, saying it should be investing more in clean coal technology
rather than discarding coal altogether.
Annual Utah coal production, though, has been slowly declining for a decade
according to the federal Energy Information Administration.
Last year, mines here produced about 17 million tons of coal, the lowest level
since 1987, though production has crept up this year.
“This is the worst we’ve seen it,” said David Palacios, who works for a trucking
company that hauls coal to the power plants, and whose business will slow once
the Carbon plant closes.
Mr. Palacios, president of the Southeastern Utah Energy Producers Association,
noted that the demand for coal has always ebbed and flowed here.
“But this has been two to three years we’re struggling through,” he said.
Compounding the problem, according to some mining experts, is that until now,
most of the state’s coal has been sold and used within the region, rather than
being exported overseas. That has left the industry here more vulnerable to
local plant closings.
Cindy Crane, chairwoman of the Utah Mining Association, said demand for Utah
coal could eventually drop as much as 50 percent. “For most players in Utah
coal, this a tough time,” said Ms. Crane, vice president of PacifiCorp, a
Western utility and mining company that owns the Carbon plant.
Mr. Nilles of the Sierra Club acknowledged that the shift from coal would not be
easy on communities like Carbon County. But employees could be retrained or
compensated for lost jobs, he said, and new industries could be drawn to the
Washington State, for example, has worked with municipalities and utilities to
ease the transition from coal plants while ensuring that workers are transferred
to other energy jobs or paid, if nearing retirement, Mr. Nilles said.
“Coal has been good to Utah,” Mr. Nilles said, “but markets for coal are drying
up. You need to get ahead of this and make sure the jobs don’t all leave.”
For many here, coal jobs are all they know. The industry united the area during
hard times, too, especially during the dark days after nine men died in a 2007
mining accident some 35 miles down the highway. Virtually everyone around Price
knew the men, six of whom remain entombed in the mountainside.
But there is quiet acknowledgment that Carbon County will have to change — if
not now, soon.
David Palacios’s father, Pete, who worked in the mines for 43 years, has seen
coal roar and fade here. Now 86, his eyes grew cloudy as he recalled his first
mining job. He was 12, and earned $1 a day.
“I’m retired, so I’ll be fine. But these young guys?” Pete Palacios said, his
voice trailing off.
Clifford Krauss contributed reporting from Houston.
WASHINGTON — For years, scientists have had a straightforward
idea for taming global warming. They want to take the carbon dioxide that spews
from coal-burning power plants and pump it back into the ground.
President Bush is for it, and indeed has spent years talking up the virtues of
“clean coal.” All three candidates to succeed him favor the approach. So do many
other members of Congress. Coal companies are for it. Many environmentalists
favor it. Utility executives are practically begging for the technology.
But it has become clear in recent months that the nation’s effort to develop the
technique is lagging badly.
In January, the government canceled its support for what was supposed to be a
showcase project, a plant at a carefully chosen site in Illinois where there was
coal, access to the power grid, and soil underfoot that backers said could hold
the carbon dioxide for eons.
Perhaps worse, in the last few months, utility projects in Florida, West
Virginia, Ohio, Minnesota and Washington State that would have made it easier to
capture carbon dioxide have all been canceled or thrown into regulatory limbo.
Coal is abundant and cheap, assuring that it will continue to be used. But the
failure to start building, testing, tweaking and perfecting carbon capture and
storage means that developing the technology may come too late to make coal
compatible with limiting global warming.
“It’s a total mess,” said Daniel M. Kammen, director of the Renewable and
Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.
“Coal’s had a tough year,” said John Lavelle, head of a business at General
Electric that makes equipment for processing coal into a form from which carbon
can be captured. Many of these projects were derailed by the short-term pressure
of rising construction costs. But scientists say the result, unless the
situation can be turned around, will be a long-term disaster.
Plans to combat global warming generally assume that continued use of coal for
power plants is unavoidable for at least several decades. Therefore, starting as
early as 2020, forecasters assume that carbon dioxide emitted by new power
plants will have to be captured and stored underground, to cut down on the
amount of global-warming gases in the atmosphere.
Yet, simple as the idea may sound, considerable research is still needed to be
certain the technique would be safe, effective and affordable.
Scientists need to figure out which kinds of rock and soil formations are best
at holding carbon dioxide. They need to be sure the gas will not bubble back to
the surface. They need to find optimal designs for new power plants so as to cut
costs. And some complex legal questions need to be resolved, such as who would
be liable if such a project polluted the groundwater or caused other damage far
from the power plant.
Major corporations sense the possibility of a profitable new business, and G.E.
signed a partnership on Wednesday with Schlumberger, the oil field services
company, to advance the technology of carbon capture and sequestration.
But only a handful of small projects survive, and the recent cancellations mean
that most of this work has come to a halt, raising doubts that the technique can
be ready any time in the next few decades. And without it, “we’re not going to
have much of a chance for stabilizing the climate,” said John Thompson, who
oversees work on the issue for the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group.
The fear is that utilities, lacking proven chemical techniques for capturing
carbon dioxide and proven methods for storing it underground by the billions of
tons per year, will build the next generation of coal plants using existing
technology. That would ensure that vast amounts of global warming gases would be
pumped into the atmosphere for decades.
The highest-profile failure involved a project known as FutureGen, which
President Bush himself announced in 2003: a utility consortium, with subsidies
from the government, was going to build a plant in Mattoon, Ill., testing the
most advanced techniques for converting coal to a gas, capturing pollutants, and
burning the gas for power.
The carbon dioxide would have been compressed and pumped underground into deep
soil layers. Monitoring devices would have tested whether any was escaping to
About $50 million has been spent on FutureGen, about $40 million in federal
money and $10 million in private money, to draw up preliminary designs, find a
site that had coal, electric transmission and suitable geology, and complete an
Environmental Impact Statement, among other steps.
But in January, the government pulled out after projected costs nearly doubled,
to $1.8 billion. The government feared the costs would go even higher. A
bipartisan effort is afoot on Capitol Hill to save FutureGen, but the project is
on life support.
The government had to change its approach, said Clarence Albright Jr., the
undersecretary of the Energy Department, to “limit taxpayer exposure to the
Trying to recover, the Energy Department is trying to cut a deal with a utility
that is already planning a new power plant. The government would offer subsidies
to add a segment to the plant dedicated to capturing and injecting carbon
dioxide, as long as the utility bore much of the risk of cost overruns.
It is unclear whether any utility will agree to such a deal. The power
companies, in fact, have been busy pulling back from coal-burning power plants
of all types, amid rising costs and political pressure. Utility executives say
they do not know of a plant that would qualify for an Energy Department grant as
the project is now structured.
Most worrisome to experts on global warming, the utilities have recently been
canceling their commitments to a type of plant long seen as a helpful
intermediate step toward cleaner coal.
In plants of this type, coal would be gasified and pollutants like mercury,
sulfur and soot removed before burning. The plants would be highly efficient,
and would therefore emit less carbon dioxide for a given volume of electricity
produced, but they would not inject the carbon dioxide into the ground.
But the situation is not hopeless. One new gasification proposal survives in the
United States, by Duke Energy for a plant in Edwardsport, Ind.
In Wisconsin, engineers are testing a method that may allow them to bolt
machinery for capturing carbon dioxide onto the back of old-style power plants;
Sweden, Australia and Denmark are planning similar tests. And German engineers
are exploring another approach, one that involves burning coal in pure oxygen,
which would produce a clean stream of exhaust gases that could be injected into
But no project is very far along, and it remains an open question whether
techniques for capturing and storing carbon dioxide will be available by the
time they are critically needed.
The Electric Power Research Institute, a utility consortium, estimated that it
would take as long as 15 years to go from starting a pilot plant to proving the
technology will work. The institute has set a goal of having large-scale tests
completed by 2020.
“A year ago, that was an aggressive target,” said Steven R. Specker, the
president of the institute. “A year has gone by, and now it’s a very aggressive
FALLS, Mont. — Richard D. Liebert turned his back against a hard wind the other
day, adjusted his black cap and gazed across golden fields of hay. Explaining
why he is against construction of a big coal-burning power plant east of town,
Liebert sounded like one more voice from the green movement.
“The more I learn about global warming and watch the drought affect ranchers and
farmers, I see that it’s wind energy, not coal plants, that can help with rural
economic development. Besides, do we want to roll the dice with the one planet
But Mr. Liebert, despite his sentiments, fits nobody’s stereotype of an
environmentalist. He is a Republican, a cattle rancher and a retired Army
lieutenant colonel who travels to South Korea to train soldiers to fight in
He is also an example of a rising phenomenon in the West. An increasingly vocal,
potent and widespread anti-coal movement is developing here. Environmental
groups that have long opposed new power plants are being joined by ranchers,
farmers, retired homeowners, ski resort operators and even religious groups.
Activists say the increasing diversity of these coalitions is making them more
“You’re seeing a convergence of people who previously never worked together or
even talked to each other,” said Anne Hedges, program director of the Montana
Environmental Information Center, which is spearheading three lawsuits aimed at
blocking construction of the power plant near Great Falls. “They’re saying these
coal plants don’t make any sense, whether from an economic or environmental or
Power companies concede that anti-coal coalitions are indeed becoming more
effective — and they describe that as a threat to the reliability of the
nation’s electric grid. In their view, building more coal-burning power plants
is the most realistic way to meet the rising demand for electric power.
“It’s clear new coal-fired generation is running into roadblocks,” said Rick
Sergel, president and chief executive of the North American Electric Reliability
Corporation. “I don’t believe we can allow coal-fired generation to become an
endangered species. We simply must use all the resources we have.”
Natural gas is an alternative to coal for electricity generation. But Mr. Sergel
said the industry worries about relying too heavily on gas because it is far
more expensive, prices have become volatile and a share of the gas supply has to
New nuclear power plants are on the drawing board, but they are many years from
completion. And although energy conservation and efficiency, as well as
renewable energy, will play larger roles in the future, they are not enough to
meet the nation’s growing appetite for electricity, Mr. Sergel said.
The collaboration of former strangers — even enemies in some cases — to fight
coal development is largely a Western phenomenon. While medical groups, city
officials, environmental groups and others have banded together to fight coal
plants near cities east of the Mississippi, the power plants in the West are
largely in rural areas and thus directly affect farmers and ranchers living on
the plains, the prairies and near the Rocky Mountains.
Government projections suggest that coal, which provides 50 percent of the
nation’s electricity and a quarter of its total energy, will continue to
dominate the nation’s energy mix, despite its environmental problems. As of last
May, the Energy Department projected that 151 coal-fired plants could be built
by 2030 to meet a 40 percent rise in demand for electricity, largely from
soaring populations in Western states.
“Coal is still very much alive,” said Jim Owen, a spokesman for the Edison
Electric Institute, an industry group.
But opponents of coal plants are winning some battles. Reports from the
government, the industry and environmental groups show that at least three dozen
coal plants have been canceled or scaled back in the last two years.
Bruce E. Nilles, a lawyer who directs the Sierra Club’s national coal campaign,
said his organization and collaborating groups had filed 29 lawsuits and
administrative appeals against proposed coal plants. Aside from legal battles,
the power industry said rising construction and labor costs and regulatory
pressure were contributing to the cancellations.
Ranchers and farmers have featured prominently in several recent battles over
power plants. In Jerome County, Idaho, for instance, Sempra Energy of San Diego
had planned to build a large plant to burn pulverized coal. A coalition that
included the Jerome County Farm Bureau, a dairy association, ski resort owners,
other landowners, local politicians and environmental activists defeated Sempra.
They also prompted a two-year statewide moratorium on such coal plants.
And in Iowa, a 77-year-old retired farmer living on the land his
great-grandfather settled in 1879 has galvanized ranchers, farmers and
environmentalists to fight plans by the LS Power Group of New Jersey to build a
coal plant on his property.
In 2003, the farmer, Merle Bell, sold LS Power an option to buy his land. He
said that even though he had doubts about the wisdom of coal plants, he thought
he had little choice because the company was also purchasing an option on his
neighbor’s land and said it would build the plant anyway. Mr. Bell later changed
his mind. His coalition is pressing the Iowa Utilities Board to kill the plant,
which also faces larger permitting hurdles.
“I grew up here,” Mr. Bell said from his home just east of Waterloo. “I rode
ponies here. I farmed and raised cows, chicken and hogs here. A coal plant would
be bad for the environment, and I don’t want to see it harm people living here
and future generations.”
For many farmers and ranchers, protecting the land they till hardly means that
they have become environmentalists. In fact, seeing environmentalists as
potential allies and not enemies has been awkward for many of them.
C. J. Kantorowicz grows winter wheat on 6,000 acres near the proposed Highwood
coal plant east of Great Falls. Last fall he joined other farmers in a zoning
lawsuit against Cascade County commissioners to stop the plant. Until he went to
an organizing meeting that another farmer, Robert Lassila, held at his house,
Mr. Kantorowicz loathed environmentalists. So he winced when he was introduced
to a pathologist who had started a local environmental group to fight the
proposed plant. She came to talk about the public health and environmental
“I think global warming is a hoax, and I hate to hitch my wagon to
environmentalists,” Mr. Kantorowicz said recently in his living room after a
hard day planting winter wheat. “I went to the meeting with the mind that I’d
shoot holes in her story, her environmentalist’s view. But she and others
convinced me they were right by being honest and answering our questions in
detail about pollution and such.”
Robert Lassila’s son, Daryl, lives next door to his parents. He recalled some of
the neighbors bristling when the meeting started.
“Many were looking at each other nervously and wondering who brought the
environmentalists here and is there a back door to this place,” he said. “But
they stayed put and here we are, together in this fight.”
For many farmers and ranchers, their aversion to coal is more pragmatic than
philosophical. Their crops and livestock have been plagued by severe droughts
and storms lately, and some wonder whether those are linked to global warming.
Whether that proves to be the case, the strain on their finances has made them
more interested in renewable-energy projects, like wind turbines, on their land.
Janyce and Leonard Harms, who grow wheat and millet in Hereford, Colo., near the
Wyoming and Nebraska borders, last year agreed to allow eight towering wind
turbines on their land. The turbines are part of the new 274-turbine Cedar Creek
wind farm owned by BP, the huge energy company, and Babcock & Brown. The project
is expected to churn out electricity for some 90,000 homes, mostly near Denver.
The Harmses, though a bit skeptical about coal plants, have not become involved
in any battles. But they typify the fascination with wind energy that is
sweeping rural America. They have received about $5,000 from the wind farm’s
owners for leasing their land, and once the wind farm is fully operational by
year’s end, they will receive at least $3,500 a year per turbine.
“We’re not environmentalists by any means,” Ms. Harms said as she gazed through
her sliding glass door at the huge turbines spinning in the distance. “I see
this as supplemental income. We’re getting older and we’d like to retire. This
is a great deal, and the fact that it’s clean energy makes it even better.”
· Threat of energy crisis sees nuclear go-ahead
· Coal-fired stations coming to the end of their lives
Wednesday May 2, 2007
Larry Elliott and Mark Milner
Fears that Britain could be plunged into an energy crisis by 2015 will result
in the green light being given by Christmas for a new generation of nuclear
power stations, senior Whitehall sources are indicating.
With more than a fifth of the UK's electricity generating capacity due to be
closed down in the next eight years, ministers are planning to fast-track
Labour's energy strategy with the publication of two white papers this month.
Sources said that the government would mount a full public consultation process
over the coming months, after which a final decision will be taken. But
ministers have been persuaded of the need to act quickly. "We are concerned that
unless we act soon, the lights could go out in 2015 in the event of a really hot
or really cold spell", said one Whitehall insider.
One of the white papers will argue that Britain needs a balanced energy
portfolio, including nuclear, to meet its needs over the coming decade. The
other is designed to speed up the planning system, allowing new power stations
to be given the go-ahead within two to three years.
The government's energy blueprint will include plans for an expansion of
renewable forms of electricity generation, but ministers believe there will
still be a potential shortfall by the middle of the next decade. They are
concerned that victory for the Scottish Nationalists in tomorrow's elections
could sound the death knell for more windfarms in Scotland.
Consultation on energy policy, ordered by the courts after a judicial review
earlier this year, will be relaunched at the same time as the white paper is
published and the government hopes to be in a position to unveil its plans
before the end of the year.
Britain is facing the risk of an "energy gap" over the coming years as ageing
nuclear plant is closed down and a number of coal-fired power stations are due
to stop generating by the end of 2015 at the latest because they do not meet the
European commission's emission regulations. Two nuclear stations were closed at
the end of last year and another six nuclear plants are currently scheduled to
close between now and 2015.
At present Britain's generating capacity is around 20% higher than peak demand,
which enables the system to maintain full supplies even if a number of power
stations unexpectedly drop off the grid. Industry estimates suggest more than 20
gigawatts of generating capacity will be retired over the next 15 years and it
will cost about Ł20bn to replace. Generating companies have tabled plans for
around 20 megawatts of new capacity but while some have passed the planning
stage others are barely beyond the drawing board.
According to the source the government is worried the comfort zone - the excess
of supply over peak demand - will be eroded between now and 2015 and that,
despite efforts to conserve energy, there is a real risk of power shortages.
Generating companies accept the need for new capacity, but are facing a number
of uncertainties over what kind of capacity should be built. A number of clean
coal projects are on the stocks but the big questions are the extent of the
political commitment to nuclear power and what will happen to the price of
carbon under carbon dioxide emission trading schemes.
Companies will be reluctant to commit to nuclear if they believe a policy of new
build would be overturned by a subsequent government, while the price of carbon
will be a key influence on the economics of the industry. A high price will
encourage renewables and nuclear but a lower price would suggest gas and coal
would remain top of the agenda.
The government has set a target that 20% of Britain's electricity will come from
renewables by 2020 but the source said that was challenging and would become
even more difficult if Labour were defeated in the Scottish elections.
The government is also concerned about the decline in output from the North Sea
which is occurring more rapidly than earlier forecasts had predicted.
The front page of this newspaper’s business
section recently featured two articles about the world’s most plentiful fuel,
coal. Written from different parts of the globe, they framed the magnitude of
the task confronting international negotiators and the newly empowered Democrats
in Congress who want to put the brakes on emissions of carbon dioxide, the main
global warming gas.
One article pointed out that China will surpass the United States as the world’s
largest emitter of carbon dioxide by 2009, a decade ahead of previous
predictions. A big reason is the explosion in the number of automobiles, but the
main reason is China’s ravenous appetite for coal, the dirtiest of all the fuels
used to produce electricity. Already, China uses more coal than the United
States, the European Union and Japan combined. Every week to 10 days, another
coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China, with enough capacity to serve
all the households in Dallas or San Diego.
What’s frightening about this for those worried about the long-term consequences
of warming is that nearly all of these plants are being built along traditional
lines, burning pulverized coal to make electricity. And what’s sad about it is
that there’s a much cleaner coal-burning technology available. Known as I.G.C.C.
— for integrated gasification combined cycle — this cleaner technology coverts
coal into a gas before it is burned.
These plants produce fewer of the pollutants that cause smog and acid rain than
conventional power plants do. More important, from a global warming perspective,
they also have the potential to capture and sequester greenhouse gases like
carbon dioxide before they enter the atmosphere.
This new technology is not readily available in China, but it is available to
utilities in the United States. Which brings us to the second article — an
announcement by TXU, a giant Texas energy company, that it intends to build 11
new coal-fired power plants in Texas, plus another dozen or so coal-fired
monsters elsewhere in the country. All told, this would be the nation’s largest
single coal-oriented construction campaign in years.
Is TXU availing itself of the cleaner technology? No. TXU will use the old
pulverized coal model. The company says the older models are more reliable. But
the real reason it likes the older models is that they are easier to build,
cheaper to run and, ultimately, much more profitable. So, like the Chinese, TXU
is locking itself (and the country) into at least 50 more years of the most
carbon-intensive technology around.
Barbara Boxer, the California Democrat who will shortly assume command of the
Senate environment committee, believes that we should impose a price on carbon
emissions (as Europe has done) so that companies like TXU will begin to think
about investing in cleaner technologies — technologies that China could then use
in its power plants. The message from both Texas and China is that Ms. Boxer
should get cracking.
The 12 men trapped in the Sago Mine tried to
escape, pounded on metal bolts and plates to signal rescuers, then prayed
together as their breathable air dwindled, the sole survivor of the blast says.
"We were worried and afraid, but we began to
accept our fate," Randy McCloy says in a letter to his co-workers' families.
In the only detailed eyewitness account of the tragedy, McCloy describes the
hours after the Jan. 2 explosion, when "the mine filled quickly with fumes and
thick smoke" and "breathing conditions were nearly unbearable."
The two-page typed letter, written from McCloy's description of the events, was
presented to the miners' families privately by his spokeswoman, Aly Goodwin
Gregg, on Wednesday. It was first reported by the Associated Press and confirmed
by USA TODAY.
McCloy and his colleagues spent more than 41 hours inside the mine polluted with
carbon monoxide before rescuers found them. He was in shock and a deep coma,
suffering multiple organ failure.
After being hospitalized for nearly three months, he went home in late March and
McCloy says in the letter that the miners activated their air packs immediately
after the blast but four didn't work. But J. Davitt McAteer, West Virginia Gov.
Joe Manchin's adviser on the joint federal-state investigation of the explosion,
said that the air packs, which were tested after the disaster, were operational.
The mining crew shared the oxygen, McCloy says. When they tried to escape, they
were turned back by a wall of toxic air.
After pounding with a sledgehammer to alert rescuers to their location, they sat
down behind a curtain they had erected for protection.
McCloy says the air behind the curtain got worse: "I tried to lie as low as
possible and take shallow breaths."
One miner led the others in the "Sinner's Prayer," then several wrote letters to
their loved ones. One by one, McCloy says, they lost consciousness. "One person
sitting near me collapsed and fell off his bucket, not moving. It was clear that
there was nothing I could do to help him," he says. "The room grew still and I
continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else. I have no idea how much time
went by before I also passed out from the gas and smoke."
Donnie Perry, sister of miner Alva Martin "Marty" Bennett, says the letter was
The sole survivor of the Sago Mine explosion
says some of the emergency air packs his fellow miners carried didn't work.
In his most detailed account of the Jan. 2
blast, Randy McCloy describes in a letter how four miners sought to share
emergency air supplies with others trapped in the mine when it appeared theirs
In the letter, McCloy refers to the emergency air packs, called self-contained
self-rescue devices, as "rescuers." Each contains about an hour's worth of air.
"The first thing we did was activate our rescuers," McCloy says in the letter to
the other miners' families. They received it Wednesday.
"At least four of the rescuers did not function," McCloy says. "There were not
enough rescuers to go around."
Federal and state officials said the air packs, which were tested after the
blast, were functional.
McCloy describes the mine filling quickly with toxic gas. "While methane does
not have an odor like propane and is considered undetectable, I could tell that
it was gassy," he says. The miners hung a curtain to protect themselves from the
In his own words: Survivor tells of Sago Mine ordeal
One at a time, they removed their air packs and took turns using a sledgehammer
to beat on metal plates and bolts, hoping to alert rescue workers to their
"We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could," he
says. "This effort caused us to breathe much harder."
Soon, the gas overwhelmed them.
"There was just so much gas," says McCloy, who shared his air pack with another
miner. "As time went on, I became very dizzy and lightheaded. Some drifted off
into what appeared to be a deep sleep."
When the air packs found with the miners were tested by government officials,
"they were found to be operative," said J. Davitt McAteer, West Virginia Gov.
Joe Manchin's adviser on the joint federal-state investigation of the explosion.
Some of the air in the packs that McCloy specifically referred to had been used,
"They were partly spent," he said Thursday. "They had worked for some period of
McAteer said he doesn't know why the miners thought the air packs weren't
working. They're "complicated" to operate and the user has to pull a cord or
blow into the device to start it, he said. "It's counterintuitive," he said.
It's possible they weren't trained properly in how to use them, McAteer said.
Federal officials also said training may have been a factor.
"Those that were activated would have functioned properly," said Dirk Fillpot,
spokesman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. "MSHA is looking
at whether the miners received adequate training."
McCloy has not yet been interviewed by investigators.
The mine's owner, International Coal Group, issued a statement saying the air
packs were all "within their manufacturer suggested life." The devices are
inspected every 90 days and checked by the wearer every day, ICG Vice President
Charles Snavely said in the statement.
Thursday morning, a section of roof at the Sago Mine, which reopened March 15,
collapsed, according to federal and state mining authorities. No workers were in
the area, and there were no injuries, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.
MHSA launched an investigation and ordered that the area of the collapse be
shored up with stronger metal bolts, Louviere said. There was no indication that
the roof collapse was related to the Jan. 2 blast.
EXCERPTS FROM LETTER
To the families and loved ones of my
co-workers, victims of the Sago Mine disaster:
The explosion happened soon after the day shift arrived at the mine face on
January 2, right after we got out of the man-trip. I do not recall whether I had
started work, nor do I have any memory of the blast. I do remember that the mine
filled quickly with fumes and thick smoke, and that breathing conditions were
The first thing we did was activate our rescuers, as we had been trained. At
least four of the rescuers did not function. I shared my rescuer with Jerry
Groves, while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from
others. There were not enough rescuers to go around.
We then tried to return to the man-trip, yelling to communicate through the
thick smoke. The air was so bad that we had to abandon our escape attempt and
return to the coal rib, where we hung a curtain to try to protect ourselves. The
curtain created an enclosed area of about 35 feet.
We attempted to signal our location to the surface by beating on the mine bolts
and plates. We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding
away. We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could.
This effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a responsive blast
or shot from the surface.
We eventually gave out and quit our attempts at signaling, sitting down behind
the curtain on the mine floor, or on buckets or cans that some of us found. The
air behind the curtain grew worse, so I tried to lie as low as possible and take
shallow breaths. While methane does not have an odor like propane and is
considered undetectable, I could tell that it was gassy. We all stayed together
behind the curtain from that point on, except for one attempt by Junior Toler
and Tom Anderson to find a way out. The heavy smoke and fumes caused them to
quickly return. There was just so much gas.
We were worried and afraid, but we began to accept our fate. Junior Toler led us
all in the Sinners Prayer. We prayed a little longer, then someone suggested
that we each write letters to our loved ones. I wrote a letter to Anna and my
children. When I finished writing, I put the letter in Jackie Weaver's lunch
box, where I hoped it would be found.
As time went on, I became very dizzy and lightheaded. Some drifted off into what
appeared to be a deep sleep, and one person sitting near me collapsed and fell
off his bucket, not moving. It was clear that there was nothing I could do to
help him. The last person I remember speaking to was Jackie Weaver, who
reassured me that if it was our time to go, then God's will would be fulfilled.
As my trapped co-workers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and
I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else. I have no idea how much
time went by before I also passed out from the gas and smoke, awaiting rescue.
I cannot begin to express my sorrow for my lost friends and my sympathy for
those they left behind. I cannot explain why I was spared while the others
perished. I hope that my words will offer some solace to the miners' families
and friends who have endured what no one should ever have to endure.
BUCKHANNON, W.Va., Jan. 8 - West Virginians
began burying their fallen miners on Sunday, mourning their losses but
celebrating the lives and legacies of men who prided themselves on making a
living by harvesting coal from deep within the earth.
In the mountain hamlets surrounding the Sago Mine, hundreds of mourners turned
out for the funerals of 6 of the 12 men who died there last week. But the grief,
sympathy and prayers extended well beyond the funerals, most of them private
services from which reporters were banned.
White ribbons and bows adorned utility poles in Buckhannon, and dozens of
roadside signs conveyed the somber mood. "Healing hurts," one sign said outside
a doughnut shop here. One just north of town read, "God just got 12 new angels."
At the service for Jesse L. Jones, a 44-year-old miner from Pickens, the Rev.
Donald Butcher, pastor of Sand Run Baptist Church, spoke the names of each of
the 12 men killed at the mine and spoke of their way of making a living and
making a life.
"You see, coal miners are a different breed of men; they don't have any fear,"
Mr. Butcher said to about 200 mourners at a funeral chapel just north of the
mine. Miners, he said, give us electricity for lights as well as powerful
lessons on working tirelessly, no matter the circumstances.
"God gives us people who are heroes, and we don't even realize it," he said. "We
got lots of coal miners here with us today. America is great because of this
profession and because of men like Jesse, who put their lives on the line."
The pastor spoke of one of Mr. Jones's grandfathers, who was killed in a mine
explosion, and of members of his own family, one of whom lost his sight and
others who lost their fingers mining.
The other miners buried Sunday were Alva Martin Bennett, 51; Jerry Groves, 56;
David Lewis, 28; Martin Toler, 51; and Jack Weaver, 52.
At Sago Baptist Church, where inaccurate first reports of the survival of 12
miners brought euphoria that later turned to grief, the Rev. Wease Day stood in
front of a huge picture of the Last Supper during regular Sunday morning
services and tried to make sense of it all.
Wearing a blue tie with the face of Jesus on it, Mr. Day told the congregation,
"The other night when we received what we all believed to be good news, we all
shouted and rejoiced, but you know when the other news came it broke our hearts
But, he said, God would never forsake his people and was with them throughout
the heartbreaking ordeal even if they could not understand or answer the
"Many times people think, 'Well, it was God's fault,' " Mr. Day said, "but God
has a master plan, and everything comes together in that master plan. He was in
control every minute.
"We were in this building the other night and it came to mind that the spirit
was so great here and it was so great outside and God had just covered these old
hilltops with his holy spirit, his holy power."
After the service, the church bells rang 12 times, echoing through the
mountains. Just down the road near the entrance to the Sago Mine, 12 black
ribbons hung from a fence.
Even as the towns mourned their dead, people kept praying for the recovery of
the sole survivor of the mine disaster, Randal McCloy Jr., 26. Doctors at West
Virginia University Hospitals, where Mr. McCloy is being treated, said that he
remained in critical condition Sunday night but that his heart, lung and muscle
functions had improved.
Mr. McCloy was breathing on his own, and doctors had stopped sedating him.
At First United Methodist Church, the pastor, the Rev. Mark Flynn, told
congregants that he had been with the families of the miners almost nonstop for
"I went to Sago to minister to those families, and they ministered to me," Mr.
Flynn said. "I was touched by the strength, the love and the wisdom. In those
dark days and nights at the Sago Baptist Church, I saw some light. I saw light
in the faith and love of the family members with whom I talked.
"Their faith was not just a vague notion that somehow everything would turn out
as they wished. These people believe that they and their loved ones were in the
hands of God, no matter what happened in that mine."