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MSHA urged to conduct public hearings

Mine safety advocates want the Bush administration to hold public hearings as part of its investigation of West Virginia’s worst coal-mining accident in nearly 40 years.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has refused to respond to questions about the public hearing demands.

Under federal law, MSHA can call public hearings to investigate “any accident or other occurrence relating to health and safety” in a mine.

By doing so, MSHA would avail itself of additional powers it does not have during other routine investigations. For example, agency officials could subpoena witnesses to testify in the hearings. During a routine investigation, witnesses can refuse to testify.

Also, public hearings would give MSHA authority to force witnesses to turn over documents that agency investigators felt were important to their investigation.

“In light of all of the communications problems, I think that they owe it to the families to do this in public,” said Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety advocate and former MSHA and Kentucky mine safety official.

Oppegard ran the last such public hearing that MSHA held. That hearing examined a July 5, 1999, explosion that injured 22 workers at the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co. plant in Gramercy, La. MSHA enforces mine safety and health rules at all aluminum-processing facilities.

On Thursday, MSHA appointed an eight-person investigation team to study Monday’s blast that trapped 13 workers deep inside the International Coal Group mine south of Buckhannon.

Only one of the miners was alive when they were found more than 40 hours later, barricaded behind a plastic curtain in an effort to block deadly carbon monoxide.

So far, investigators believe the blast occurred in a mined-out, sealed area of the mine. It blew out the mine seal, throwing the seal into the active mine area.

In addition to investigating possible causes of the blast — including three lightning strikes within five miles of the mine in the half-hour before the explosion — MSHA has said it will examine communication mishaps that led anxious relatives to believe for three hours that 12 of the 13 workers had survived.

Late this week, Oppegard said a public hearing would help Sago Mine employees feel comfortable being open and honest with MSHA inspectors. When MSHA does routine investigations, coal company officials are allowed to sit in on such interviews.

“When you do it behind closed doors, and your boss is sitting across the table from you, it is kind of intimidating,” Oppegard said.

Wes Addington, a Kentucky lawyer who represents miners in discrimination cases against coal companies, agreed.

“You’re much more likely to get useful information [in a public hearing],” Addington said Friday. “Whether its conscious or unconscious, there’s a level of protection that the miners will feel. In an open setting, people are inherently going to be more willing to be more forthcoming.”

Federal mine regulators have had the authority to call public hearings on mining accidents since passage of the first Federal Mine Safety and Health Act in 1969.

Political appointees who have run MSHA, though, rarely have used that authority to provide broad public access to agency investigations.

MSHA conducted a public hearing into the March 1972 explosion that killed 11 workers at the Scotia Mine in Letcher County, Ky., and into the March 1977 gangway collapse that killed nine workers at the Porter Tunnel Mine in Schuylkill County, Pa.

Davitt McAteer, who was MSHA chief during the Clinton administration, said the public interest would be well served by open hearings into the Sago Mine tragedy.

“There can be no question that there is great public concern here, and a public hearing would certainly serve the public interest,” McAteer, a Marion County native, said Friday.

Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union, said the union favors open hearings by MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

“We are definitely in favor of public hearings,” Smith said. “We would like to see that.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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