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Mine reopens except for site of fatal blast

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Federal inspectors at the mine where 12 men died after a January explosion said yesterday that workers could reenter all but the abandoned area where the fatal blast apparently occurred.

Ashland, Ky.-based International Coal Group Inc. will resume production at the Sago mine next week, said Ray McKinney, coal mine safety administrator for the Mine Safety and Health Administration. A company spokesman said he could not comment immediately.

Thirteen miners became trapped deep in the mine Jan. 2 after an explosion, and were exposed to deadly carbon monoxide for more than 41 hours before searchers found them. By then, all but one had died.

McKinney said his agency has finished its underground investigation of the mine. He declined to speculate on what caused the explosion, but said investigators are confident the blast occurred in an abandoned and sealed area, near an active mine section known as Two Left.

Mine administration and federal scientists with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health are planning to test the 40-inch-thick, dense foam blocks that were used to seal off the area, McKinney said.

Omega blocks, a lighter, cheaper alternative to concrete blocks, are used widely in US coal mining.

McKinney said the International Coal Group planned to resume work with two shifts, but had few other details on the company's plans.

It was unclear how quickly the company planned to comply with new emergency rules that the mine agency adopted to help miners escape accidents.

The rules that went into effect Thursday require coal companies to comply within 30 days or at least show purchase orders for the necessary equipment.

Companies must give each miner an extra air pack and, in some cases, store extra breathing devices along escape routes. The companies also must ensure miners have clearly marked ''lifelines" along escape routes.

Lead investigator Richard Gates said his team examined the mine's condition and equipment, took rock dust samples, and conducted interviews with company officials and employees.

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