Mine Owner Defends Safety Record

ByABC News via logo
January 6, 2006, 6:21 AM

Jan. 5, 2005 — -- Wilbur Ross, a socially prominent businessman with homes on Fifth Avenue, in the Hamptons and Palm Beach, bears the ultimate responsibility for the Sago mine. His company, the International Coal Group, of which he is the chairman and principal owner, took over the mine in West Virginia just a few months ago.

"Oh my God. It's the worst week of my entire life," he told ABC News.

In the business world, Ross is known as a shrewd investor who buys companies in trouble. Two years ago, he made his move into the coal industry and recently rescued the tiny Sago mine that had been in bankruptcy for two years. Although Ross bought into a mine that, for its size, may have been the most dangerous coal mine in America, he maintained that it met industry standards.

"I believe that the mine was fundamentally safe," he said.

But based on Department of Labor records that were reviewed by "Primetime," the Sago mine received 16 citations last year for the most serious violations, called unwarranted failures, issued in the industry.

"That's normally issued to mine operators that basically thumb their nose to the law, these unwarrantable failure violations," said Joe Main, a recently retired safety director for the United Mine Workers for 20 years.

"This is the kind of violation I think most operators cringe to get in a mining industry today because of the significance of the violation itself," he continued. "So there is definitely a serious problem at this coal mine when you look at just that one fact alone."

In an interview for ABC News, Ross appeared aware of the extent and seriousness of the violations issued to the Sago mine over the last year. Yet, the company did not shut down the mine.

"We were comfortable, based on the assurances from our management that they felt that it was a safe situation," Ross said of sending workers into the mine.

But today, in West Virginia, some of the miners and relatives did not agree.

"I do have some anger. I'm angry that they would have so many citations, and it just sounds to me that people knew it was dangerous. I'm angry about that," Tambra Flint, the mother of the only survivor, Randal McCloy, said.

In fact, the documents examined by "Primetime" show there were a total of 20 roof collapses at the Sago mine last year, which led the government to order more than a dozen partial shutdowns of the mine.

"His company really stands out as an irresponsible and dangerous operation," said Jack Spadaro, a mining engineer and former employee of the Mining Health and Safety Administration, an agency within the Department of Labor.

Up until he retired a year and a half ago, Spadaro was in charge of training federal mine inspectors.

"These are substantial violations that go to the heart of mine health and safety," he continued. "If that small of a mine has that large amount of violations, it jumps out. It should have definitely have closed."

While President Bush expressed sympathy for the lost miners and their families, Spadaro maintained that under the Bush administration, officials in charge of mine safety have become too cozy with the mine industry.

"The inspectors have been forbidden from being as aggressive as they need to be," Spadaro says. "They can't go ahead and close the mine and use the authority that they have to do the job that they've been charged to do."

Some now liken Wilbur Ross to the coal barons of the 19th and 20th centuries. His coal mining company, the International Coal Group, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange just six weeks ago. Later that same week in November, there were two more of the 20 roof collapses reported at the Sago mine.

Although Ross maintains that his company "never scrimped on safety expenditures," he did accept responsibility for what happened.

As the families in West Virginia prepared to bury their dead, they got the word that the company was going to set up a fund for them.

"The board had a meeting. We decided that we would put the first $2 million into the fund and try to raise more money to help the workers," said Ross.

But some in West Virginia called Ross' offer of charity too little, too late.

"Well, $2 million between 13, no, 12 men, one's still living, that's not a lot," said Judy Schackelford, a relative of one of the miners.

"It's easy to throw a couple million afterward instead of spending a few million ahead of time to save men's lives in the first place," said Kevin Sharp, also a relative of one of the miners.

Wilbur Ross, whose recent wedding was the talk of New York society, says he hopes Americans will give generously to the miners although the billionaire admitted to ABC News that he has yet to give a dollar of his own money.

"We own about a third of the company, and we will decide what to do about a personal contribution as we see what comes in from the outside," he said.

ABC News' Avni Patel, Maddy Sauer and Rhonda Schwartz contributed to this report.