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UBB Mine disaster hearings postponed

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration on Friday backed off its promised public hearings on the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years, and said it will not release witness statements taken as part of its closed-door inquiry into the April 5 explosion at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine.

Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith attributed the decision to a request from U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who said he fears public discussion about the disaster "could hinder" his ongoing Department of Justice criminal investigation.

"From the very beginning, we have exercised extreme caution to ensure that [the] DOJ has had every opportunity to run its own investigation," Smith said in a prepared statement.

Smith said Labor Department officials "remain committed" to holding public hearings at some point, "once we are assured by the criminal prosecutors that doing so will not impede their ability to bring any wrongdoers to justice."

The initial government news release did not quote federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main, who was a longtime advocate of more public investigations when he was safety director at the United Mine Workers union. MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere issued a comment in Main's name in response to questions from the Gazette-Mail about whether Main supported the decision.

"We're going to continue with our investigation and, at the appropriate time, we'll move ahead with the release of the transcripts and the public hearing," Main said. "As we've said all along, we will not jeopardize any effort by the FBI or federal prosecutors to bring any wrongdoers to justice."

Smith issued her statement exactly an hour after Goodwin confirmed that he had asked the Labor Department and its Mine Safety and Health Administration not to move forward with plans for the public hearing or make public transcripts of closed-door witness interviews.

Goodwin said MSHA officials informed him recently that they had completed witness interviews and were preparing to schedule public hearings. Goodwin said he told the agency "that release of the transcripts and holding of public hearings at which testimony would be taken could hinder the criminal investigation and any potential prosecution."

"We don't take this step lightly," Goodwin said in an interview. "We understand that the families want answers and we want them to have those answers.

"This is obviously a high priority for my office," Goodwin said. "It's getting the resources necessary to bring it to a swift conclusion, but we're not going to rush it. We're working as quickly as we can."

Goodwin said he doesn't think it is possible -- as has been done with the ongoing investigation of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico -- to carefully choose witnesses and testimony for a public hearing to avoid releasing information that would harm the Upper Big Branch criminal investigation.

"It would also be inappropriate to release only a portion of the transcripts or hold hearings where only select testimony is taken, because it is not possible to determine at this time the bearing that information may have on the ongoing criminal investigation as it progresses," Goodwin said in his prepared statement.

Smith had been scheduled to break the news about the public hearings to the families of the 29 miners who died in Upper Big Branch during a private meeting scheduled for Tuesday in Beckley.

Under federal law, MSHA has broad authority to conduct mine accident investigations through formal public hearings. In recent years, though, agency officials have instead conducted closed-door interviews and quietly gathered physical evidence, reporting their findings many months later in technically worded reports.

A month after the April 5 disaster, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced that her agency would provide that kind of transparency, with a series of public hearings, forums and town meetings that would examine the Upper Big Branch explosion.

Since then, though, MSHA has continued to conduct closed-door interviews, has rarely updated families on the investigation's progress, and has not responded to numerous requests for public records about safety issues at Upper Big Branch prior to the explosion.

Charleston lawyer Tim Bailey, who represents several Upper Big Branch families, urged Goodwin to "conclude his investigation as quickly as possible to minimize the delay in our receipt of this important information."

Rachel Hanna Moreland, a Lewisburg lawyer who represents several Upper Big Branch families, lost a lawsuit that tried to force MSHA to conduct its disaster interviews in public session.

"The families deserve and demand answers," Moreland said Friday. "[The] DOJ should send a representative to the family meeting to answer their questions and concerns, along with Patricia Smith."

Goodwin said neither he nor anyone from the Justice Department would do that.

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers, said the union hopes Goodwin's request "means that there is a sound, substantial and ultimately successful criminal case being built against the persons responsible" for the mine disaster.

Massey Energy officials did not comment on Goodwin's request or MSHA's announcement.

Davitt McAteer, who is leading an independent investigation of Upper Big Branch at the request of former Gov. Joe Manchin, said his team plans to quote from the witness interview transcripts when their report is released. After learning of MSHA's decision Friday, McAteer said his team is considering whether to hold its own public hearing, as was done following the 2006 Sago Mine disaster.

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


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