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Complaints continue about Sago investigation

As lawmakers in Washington prepare for today’s start of congressional hearings on mine safety, complaints continue about the handling of the state and federal inquiry into the Sago Mine disaster.

The United Mine Workers union wrote to the federal government’s top Sago investigator on Friday to object to the secrecy surrounding the inquiry.

“We strongly believe that a free and open hearing process is the best way to conduct all aspects of the investigation,” said UMW lawyer Judith Rivlin in the letter to Richard Gates at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Last week, MSHA and West Virginia officials proposed to exclude UMW representatives and International Coal Group lawyers from investigation interviews when ICG objected to the union taking part.

The Sago Mine is a nonunion operation, but several miners exercised the legal right to designate the UMW as their representative during the investigation.

UMW officials have said they will not agree to sit out the interviews or a more crucial on-site examination of the Sago Mine.

“An open and free exchange of information and ideas, fully explored by and among all those with knowledge and expertise of the particular mine and those with experience developed in other mine disasters, would enhance the quality of your investigation,” Rivlin wrote to Gates.

“On the other hand, shutting out company and miners’ representatives, while even-handed, forfeits the additional information and expertise these representatives could offer MSHA and state investigators,” Rivlin wrote. “These failures may ultimately lead to an investigation that overlooks important facts or fails to explore various theories.”

MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training are still in the early stages of their investigation of the Jan. 2 explosion that claimed the lives of 12 miners and critically injured a 13th at the mine, which is south of Buckhannon in Upshur County.

The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., continues to improve, but remains in a “light coma” at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

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

News over the weekend that two miners died in a Logan County mine after an underground fire likely will fuel even more calls for reform. The miners’ bodies were found Saturday evening in Aracoma Coal Co.’s Alma No. 1 in Melville, nearly two days after a belt fire trapped them in the mine.

This morning, a U.S. Senate budget subcommittee will hold the first of what is expected to be a series of hearings into the Sago explosion and the weaknesses in mine safety and rescue programs that the disaster revealed.

Witnesses are scheduled to include acting MSHA chief David Dye, MSHA coal administrator Ray McKinney, former MSHA chief Davitt McAteer, who is a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University, ICG President Ben Hatfield, West Virginia Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton and UMW President Cecil Roberts.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., helped arrange the hearings and says he is worried about cutbacks under President Bush in MSHA’s budget and staffing, as well as diminished political will to enforce safety rules strongly.

“I am very concerned that the nation’s mine-safety watchdog has lost its bark, as well as its bite,” Byrd said over the weekend.

In an interview last week with the Salt Lake Tribune, former Bush administration MSHA chief Dave Lauriski defended the agency’s performance under his watch.

Lauriski, who returned to the industry shortly after Bush’s re-election, told the paper that Democrats and labor activists are exploiting the Sago disaster for political gain.

“The thing that frustrates me and I think hurts the mining community is that personal agendas are driving that criticism, and personal agendas are turning the fact that 12 miners died into a political [issue],” Lauriski said. “It ought to be about how we improve things and not have things like this happen in the future.”

Byrd said he is focused on finding new technologies that could be used to save miners’ lives. Mine rescue teams use technology that, in many cases, is 30 to 40 years old, Byrd said.

“We should not rely on 1966 technology to save lives in 2006,” Byrd said. “We can send a robot to Mars and communicate with it immediately, but we can’t talk with miners trapped 250 feet below the earth’s surface.

“We ought to be able to use 21st-century technologies that enhance communications,” Byrd said. “We should be able to pre-position oxygen and other emergency supplies. These are safety basics that must be addressed.”

But Byrd also said he is concerned about the Bush administration’s refusal to implement mine safety regulations, preferring instead to rely on voluntary efforts at individual mines.

“The coal industry used technology to make great gains in production,” Byrd said Saturday. “The Bush administration has not been shy about making regulatory changes when it wants to boost operations. But the same priority has not been given to keeping miners safe and healthy.”

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


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