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Sago Mine disaster hearing to start May 2

A public hearing on the Sago Mine disaster will start May 2, Gov. Joe Manchin announced Wednesday.

The hearing was originally scheduled for March 14, but was delayed at the request of several families of the 12 miners who died in the disaster.

“It’s a complex investigation and, as the miners’ families have said, it’s more important to determine the facts carefully and thoroughly than to act before all the facts are in,” said Davitt McAteer, Manchin’s special adviser on mine safety.

The hearing will be held on the West Virginia Wesleyan College campus in Buckhannon, and is expected to last several days. McAteer will moderate the hearing, which will include a panel of state and federal investigators, as well as labor and industry officials.

“I’m confident that May’s public hearing will be very useful in providing crucial information to the families of these fallen miners,” Manchin said in a statement.

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.

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 Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training have agreed to make transcripts of those interviews public before they hold the public hearing.

David G. Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, said, “The families of the fallen Sago miners and the public deserve to know the progress we have made in determining the cause of this disaster.

“MSHA hopes these public hearings perform that vital informational function,” Dye said.

Federal mine regulators have had the authority to call public hearings on mining accidents since passage of the Federal Coal 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 and mine investigators 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 public hearing was held by MSHA to investigate a July 5, 1999, explosion that injured 22 workers at the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co. plant in Gramercy, La. MSHA enforces mine safety and health rules at all alumina-processing facilities.

Manchin has also promised a public hearing on the Jan. 19 fire that killed two workers at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County. A date for that hearing has not been set.

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


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