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Sago widows want public hearing postponed

A group of women whose husbands died in the Sago Mine disaster has asked the Manchin administration to delay a public hearing on the disaster, legislative leaders learned Thursday.

The widows made the request earlier this week in a meeting with Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s top adviser on the Sago investigation.

McAteer and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training had scheduled the hearing to start March 14 in Buckhannon.

“Their argument is that we won’t have all of the information — we won’t have all of the answers,” McAteer told lawmakers during a briefing Thursday evening at the Capitol.

He said state and federal investigators need more than two weeks to complete interviews with witnesses.

Investigators are also still working underground to collect evidence. Also, federal scientists have just begun what could be a lengthy study of the materials used to seal off an abandoned area where the explosion could have occurred.

The Sago widows suggested the hearing be postponed until May. McAteer has promised Manchin a report on the disaster by July 1.

McAteer said he wanted to ask the rest of the Sago families about the potential delay, and still needed to discuss the proposal with Manchin.

“There are some advantages in that we would get more information,” McAteer said. “There are some disadvantages in that it would slow the process down.”

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the hearing could turn into an “exercise in futility” if officials do not have enough information to answer families’ questions.

Twelve miners died and another was critically injured in the Jan. 2 explosion at the mine owned by International Coal Group. It was the worst coal mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

McAteer said investigators are still focusing on theories that a series of lightning strikes near the mine site could have ignited the blast.

No clear evidence that would point to other potential ignition sources — such as battery charging stations, roof falls or mine pumps — has yet emerged, McAteer said.

Investigators, though, have taken a sample of railing used by underground vehicles to test it for the potential to carry an electrical charge, he said.

McAteer also revealed that the company was taking air readings from inside the sealed area through a 30-foot-long ventilation pipe. He said he had not seen data from those samples.

McAteer continued to caution lawmakers against jumping to any conclusions before all of the evidence is in.

“These things do take time,” he said. “They just take time.”

McAteer said he and a small staff are still ironing out details of their plan for the Sago public hearing.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has agreed to take part in the hearing, but MSHA has not exercised its authority to subpoena witnesses and hold the entire investigation in public.

Some widows of Sago miners have complained publicly that they are being left out of the investigation, and that company attorneys are allowed to sit in on private witness interviews, but they are not.

McAteer said MSHA and the state have agreed to make transcripts of those interviews public before they hold the public hearing.

In a related development, MSHA has announced it will hold a public meeting next month in Washington, D.C., to accept public comments on ways to improve mine rescue technology.

The meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. March 13 at the National Press Club, 529 14th St., NW, 13th Floor, MSHA said.

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


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