Pa. on verge of death-free year in mines

State safety chief takes dim view of W.Va. catastrophe

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State mine safety chief Joe Sbaffoni is almost afraid to talk of it for fear of invoking some jinx, but, barring some final week misfortune, Pennsylvania is on track to go through its first year without a mine fatality.

Records have been kept since the late 19th century and Mr. Sbaffoni, director of the state's Bureau of Mine Safety, said 2010 could end the year with a clean record. It would stand in contrast to other states. Nationally, 49 people have died this year in mine-related accidents, including the catastrophic blast at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, which killed 29 men -- the worst mining disaster in 40 years.

The announcement came during a panel discussion at Allegheny General Hospital on the treatment of mining injuries. Panelists included doctors who treated Randal McCloy, the lone survivor of the 2006 Sago mine explosion, as well as members of various mine rescue and medical groups.

"So far this year, we haven't had any fatalities in any of our mining areas -- both surface, underground coal, metal and non-metal," Mr. Sbaffoni said. "It's a testament to the efforts of everybody involved in the industry."

Pennsylvania is the nation's fourth-largest producer of coal, both bituminous and anthracite.

His announcement followed a presentation and question-and-answer period during which the topic of the April 5 blast at Upper Big Branch was raised.

In unusually blunt language, Mr. Sbaffoni declared that such an accident should not happen in underground mines.

"Sometimes the answer's not more regulations. Sometimes the answer is to enforce the regulations that you have on the books," he said.

Later, he said he was not passing a judgment on the cause of the blast, which remains the subject of a joint state-federal investigation as well as a criminal grand jury probe.

"Something had to go awful wrong down there," he said. "I don't believe it should happen today."

Pennsylvania's last major mine catastrophe took place in 1962, when 37 miners died after a huge explosion at the Robena Mine in Carmichaels.

Wednesday's forum, attended by approximately 40 people, mostly medical personnel, provided additional insights into the treatment of Mr. McCloy. He was found unconscious and suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning. Doctors at West Virginia University's Ruby Medical Center initially treated him, then had him transferred to AGH for treatment in a bariatric pressure chamber, a form of treatment that previously had been shown to be successful for patients treated within hours of their injuries. Mr. McCloy had been underground for 41 hours -- a prospect that did not bode well for his recovery.

Julian Bailes, head of neurosurgery at WVU's school of medicine, said Mr. McCloy's treatment included large doses of omega fatty acids, an attempt to restore lost brain function.

"The concept was to give him what his brain was made of when he was an embryo," Dr. Bailes said. "I had no real strategy other than to try to rebuild his brain."

With the combination of oxygen treatment at AGH and the fatty acids, Mr. McCloy made a substantial recovery.

Although Mr. McCloy was invited to attend Wednesday's session, a spokeswoman for the McCloy family said he has avoided further publicity since leaving the hospital.

Dennis B. Roddy: or 412-263-1965.


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