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ICG, UMW sidelined in Sago Mine interviews

Coal company lawyers and union representatives are sitting out interviews aimed at finding the cause of the Sago Mine disaster, officials said Thursday.

The two sides tentatively agreed to back off from a fight over International Coal Group’s opposition to having United Mine Workers’ safety experts attend the interviews.

Interviews of miners who escaped the Jan. 2 explosion continued Thursday in Clarksburg, with only officials from West Virginia and U.S. agencies attending.

“We’re just trying to get a good picture of what happened, what people experienced, what they saw,” said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.

Conaway said the real work will start early next week, once conditions in the Sago Mine allow investigators inside. ICG officials have been venting dangerous gases from the mine and pumping water out of the operation.

“It’s going to take a physical examination at the mine to make any real determinations about what happened here,” Conaway said Thursday.

That on-site mine examination, though, might re-ignite the fight between ICG and the UMW over the union’s role in the Sago inquiry.

Conaway said the agreement between the company and union applied only to the interviews, not to the mine examination.

“There are ongoing discussions about how to approach the on-site investigation,” Conaway said.

Conaway’s agency and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration are in the early stages of their inquiry of the explosion that claimed the lives of 12 miners and critically injured a 13th worker at the mine south of Buckhannon.

The sole survivor, Randal McCloy, remained in serious condition Thursday at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

The Sago accident was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years, and has created renewed interest in mine safety reforms in West Virginia and nationwide.

During a speech Thursday morning to West Virginia Coal Association members, Gov. Joe Manchin repeated his promise to do whatever is necessary to end all mine injuries and deaths in the state.

“I don’t care what the federal government does,” Manchin said. “We’re going to have the safest mines in the nation.”

In Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., announced that he will lead a delegation of lawmakers to visit the Sago Mine today and meet with families and company officials.

The visit, which was to include Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would be a prelude to a Senate hearing on Monday that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., organized to discuss the Sago disaster and overall mine safety issues.

At Thursday’s Coal Association meeting in Charleston, association President Bill Raney asked members to honor the Sago victims with a moment of silence “on behalf of a grateful industry.”

“We can and will learn from this experience, and we will get better,” Raney said. “We are saddened, we are humbled, but we are tough and we are proud.”

Manchin asked Coal Association members to cooperate in his effort to set up underground mine tours for CNN’s Anderson Cooper and other members of the national media.

“I think it’s a great opportunity for the world to see who we are,” Manchin said.

Manchin, in an interview after his speech, said he does not understand why miners do not have access to larger supplies of oxygen for underground emergencies.

“No one should ever suffocate in a mine,” Manchin said.

Manchin said that, although he is not interested in blaming the Sago disaster on anyone, he is troubled by reports about numerous safety violations at the mine.

“I don’t know enough about the severity of the violations,” Manchin said. “I can tell you that the perception was there were a lot of problems that needed to be repaired, and they had more of these problems than other mines in the industry.

“Something went wrong,” the governor said, “and something must be done to fix it.”

Manchin also said his administration backs the agreement to exclude the UMW and ICG from the investigation interviews.

The Sago Mine is a nonunion operation. But at least two Sago miners exercised their right under federal law to have the UMW represent them during the accident investigation. ICG officials objected, saying the union is trying to use the investigation to further its organizing efforts.

“We’re not going to have one without the other, so let’s just keep all of them away,” Manchin said. “Common sense is going to prevail.”

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


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