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Pressure continues for public hearing on mine disaster

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pressure continued to build Wednesday on the Obama administration to investigate the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster through a public hearing instead of closed-door interviews.

Massey Energy joined the call for a public hearing, saying open sessions are the only way for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to be sure the investigation is "independent, honest and aggressive."

"To be credible, any such hearing must also be fair," Massey said in a prepared statement. "Any hearing must encompass the basic principles of due process."

Massey issued its statement a day after MSHA announced it had formed a "supplemental investigation group" to allow miners, victims' families and the public to provide information about the April 5 explosion "without fear of retaliation or the need to reveal their identities."

Massey responded, "To the greatest possible extent, basic protections must be in place to ensure that the hearing develops a complete and balanced public record. Massey supports a hearing that is fair and credible, as well as open and transparent."

Massey joins two Upper Big Branch widows, the United Mine Workers union, and a collection of media organizations, including The Charleston Gazette, in urging MSHA to conduct a public hearing on the explosion that killed 29 miners.

Generally, MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training have conducted investigations of mining deaths and disasters through closed-door public hearings.

But frequently, coal company lawyers have been allowed into the interviews, either in their official role or by convincing miners who are interviewed to ask the lawyers to accompany them during questioning.

Often, the UMW becomes part of the probe in its role as "miners' representative" at unionized mines. But mine safety law also allows miners at non-union mines to appoint safety representatives, and several Upper Big Branch miners have asked the UMW to serve in that role for the disaster investigation.

Under federal law, calling a public hearing is the only way MSHA would have subpoena power to compel witnesses to appear for questioning or provide the agency with documents about the mine explosion. But MSHA has seldom used its authority to call public hearings.

So far, MSHA chief Joe Main, who frequently blasted MSHA secrecy when he was the UMW's safety director, has not offered any public support for launching a public hearing at Upper Big Branch.

MSHA officials were scheduled to discuss their investigation Wednesday night during a private meeting with the families of the miners killed in the disaster. A public announcement of how the agency plans to proceed is expected Thursday.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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