Probe Ties Air Compressor to Mine Fire That Killed 27
The 1984 fire that killed 27 workers in the Wilberg coal mine was caused when an air compressor was inadvertently turned on with its heat sensor disconnected, officials said Friday.
Herschel Potter, chief investigator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said a heat-sensor switch that would have automatically shut off the compressor had been “rendered inoperable” before the fire.
“We don’t know how the compressor caught fire,” Potter said in announcing preliminary conclusions of a 21-month investigation. He said he did not know why the heat sensor and the compressor’s on/off switch had been disconnected.
However, he said the compressor, about 200 feet from the entrance to the half-mile section where the victims were working on the night of Dec. 19, 1984, had been turned on at least 48 hours before the fire and was running unnoticed.
“Somebody could very well have inadvertently turned on the compressor,” he said, noting that, because its on/off switch had been disabled, the compressor would start if a circuit breaker in a transformer 100 feet away were thrown.
Potter said the breaker for the compressor was next to a breaker for a coal conveyor’s belt drive and it was possible that a miner, intending to start the belt drive, had inadvertently switched on the compressor.
The United Mine Workers union questioned the conclusions.
Joe Main, the union’s health and safety director, charged that the mine agency and the mine’s owner, Utah Power & Light Co., had “conspired” to cover up what the union charges were unsafe conditions at the Wilberg mine. The union contends the mine had insufficient escape routes and improper ventilation.
Main said that the union, which conducted its own investigation, concluded that the fire began in a conveyor belt drive 200 feet from the compressor and could be blamed on company efforts to set a world mining production record the night of the fire.
Firm to Be Cited
At least two citations will be issued against Emery Mining Corp., which then operated the mine for the utility, one for the heat sensor and the other for the on/off switch, Potter said. He said other citations could be issued.
An Emery Mining Corp. spokesman called the conclusions “premature.” Utah Power spokesman John Ward said the company had no comment.