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Feds urged to make Sago probe public

Congressional Democrats are again calling on federal mine safety regulators to open ongoing accident investigations to the public.

Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Major Owens, D-N.Y., urged Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to stop closed-door investigation interviews in letter sent Friday.

Instead, Miller and Owens want Chao to hold investigation interviews — especially those into the Sago Mine disaster — in public hearings.

“Our call for public hearings reflects what we have heard from the family members of the miners killed at Sago and other mines and from miners themselves,” said Miller, the senior Democrat on the House committee that oversees the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“We strongly urge Secretary Chao to open these proceedings to the public immediately, so that family members, mine workers, their representatives and the public can understand what went wrong in these horrific tragedies, and to ensure that these investigations are thorough and fair,” Miller said in a prepared statement.

Twelve miners died and another was critically injured in the Jan. 2 explosion at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine south of Buckhannon.

Two other miners died in a Jan. 19 fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.

Also, two more West Virginia miners died in separate accidents on Feb. 1.

On Thursday, a Kentucky miner killed in Perry County roof fall became the 20th U.S. coal miner to die on the job so far in 2006.

In West Virginia, the Sago explosion was the worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years. And, the 16 state miners to die so far in 2006 is more than in any entire year since 1995.

Gov. Joe Manchin has promised the state would hold its own public hearings into the Sago and Aracoma accidents.

The Sago hearing has tentatively been scheduled to start March 14 in Buckhannon.

But, MSHA has so far declined to invoke a section of federal mining law that allows it to conduct all investigation interviews in public.

Dirk Fillpot, an MSHA spokesman, said the agency would not open all of its interviews to the public.

Earlier this week, widows of miners who died at the Sago disaster complained during a public forum in Washington, D.C., they were not being kept informed about the MSHA investigation into their husbands’ deaths.

In a letter to Chao, Miller and Owens said Sago widows Deborah Hamner and Linda Anderson asked MSHA’s lead investigator, Richard Gates, during a Feb. 9 meeting if families could attend investigation interviews.

Gates told the women he would have an answer for them by Feb. 14.

“To date, no response has been provided,” Miller and Owens wrote.

“Will family members and their representatives be permitted to attend those interviews? If not, what is your justification for keeping the interview process closed? If the interview process remains closed, how quickly could you expedite the provision of transcripts from those interviews to family members?”

During the Monday forum in Washington, Hamner said, “Now there are private and secret interviews being conducted by MSHA, and they are to resume tomorrow.

“Many of the witnesses will be employees who are represented by lawyers paid for by ICG,” she said. “I will not be allowed to attend. The miner may ask the [United Mine Workers] to step out, but the company’s paid-for attorney can stay.

“Does this seem like a fair process to get at the truth?”

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


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