Federal and state investigators were scheduled to begin interviews this morning as they dig in for what could be a long and complicated probe of the Sago Mine disaster.
Contrary to previous suggestions from state and federal regulators, the interviews will take place behind closed doors, government officials confirmed Monday.
A public hearing will be held later, but will not focus on fact-finding to determine the exact cause of the Jan. 2 Sago Mine explosion.
Instead, that hearing — promised by Gov. Joe Manchin — will try to find solutions to systematic mine safety and rescue flaws exposed by the Sago disaster.
“I want to ask the overarching questions: What is in place, and what can we improve?” said Davitt McAteer, a former federal mine safety chief who is advising Manchin on the investigation.
Twelve miners died and another remains in serious condition following the early-morning blast at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine south of Buckhannon.
Investigators believe that the disaster — the worst mining accident in West Virginia in nearly 40 years — started with an explosion in an area of the Sago Mine that ICG had sealed about a month earlier.
Over the past week, mine safety advocates have pointed to inconsistencies about plans for the Sago investigation in public statements from state officials and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Those inconsistencies have led to press reports that MSHA had agreed to calls that it conduct its Sago investigation through a series of public hearings.
In a Jan. 9 news release, MSHA announced that its “joint investigation” with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training would include a “joint public hearing.”
That same day, Manchin also promised “open public hearings” on the Sago disaster and the communications foul-ups that led to incorrect reports that the miners had survived.
“In the past, most investigative hearings of this type have been private,” Manchin said. “However, my administration and the federal government feel that the victims’ families and the people of West Virginia deserve to have their voices heard with regard to this tragedy.”
But at a news conference with Manchin and McAteer, acting deputy MSHA chief Bob Friend confirmed that his agency had not invoked its authority under federal law to conduct its accident investigation through public hearings.
By doing so, MSHA would have availed 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 testify voluntarily, and can refuse to do so. Also, public hearings would give MSHA authority to force witnesses to turn over documents that agency investigators felt were important to their probe.
Mine safety advocates say the open hearings also allow family members of victims to attend and hear for themselves what happened, giving them greater confidence in the investigation.
Also, safety advocates say, public interviews make company employees more comfortable about answering questions honestly.
Typically, mine accident investigations take place in private, but company officials and company lawyers are allowed to attend.
At unionized mines, the United Mine Workers represents miners during the interviews.
The Sago Mine is not unionized, but miners there can appoint someone to represent them in the interviews.
It was not clear Monday if the Sago miners had asked anyone to represent them in the interviews.
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, have rarely used that authority to provide broad public access to agency investigations.
MSHA conducted a public hearing into the March 1972 explosions that killed 26 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.
The last such MSHA hearing was held following a July 5, 1999, explosion that injured 22 workers at the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co. plant in Gramercy, La.
In that case, an MSHA investigation team examined the accident site, gathered documents and conducted informal interviews. Then, MSHA’s public hearing was delayed for more than three weeks while Kaiser fought subpoenas for various company officials.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/