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Sago hearings begin today

SAGO — Early Monday afternoon, the gravel parking lot was empty at the Sago Baptist Church.

Coal trucks rumbled along the Sago Road, and coal was piled high outside the Sago Mine.

“Safe choices,” said a sign on one of International Coal Group’s buildings. “Safe production,” said another banner.

Up the road in Buckhannon, maintenance workers had finished setting up more than 350 folding chairs in a gymnasium at West Virginia Wesleyan College. A crew was carrying in speakers and wires for a huge sound system.

By this morning, television satellite broadcast trucks will line the circular driveway outside Wesley Chapel in the center of campus.

Today, a public hearing starts on the causes of the explosion that killed 12 workers four months ago at the Sago Mine. Company officials, government experts and Sago family members are scheduled to testify.

Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s mine safety adviser and the hearing chairman, said his goal is to give families more of a say in the ongoing government investigation of the fatal blast. Regulators, coal executives and mine managers should face families and be forced to honestly answer their questions, McAteer said.

“There has been no place for families in investigations of mining accidents, and that day is over,” McAteer said Monday, as he oversaw final setup of the hearing room.

“The families ought to be involved,” McAteer said. “If we have families that are involved in mine safety, the mines will be safer.”

Still, questions persist about the Sago hearing. Some longtime mine safety advocates worry that it may become less of an investigative hearing and more of a public relations event.

Tony Oppegard, a former Kentucky mine safety prosecutor, said he remains concerned that so much of the Sago investigation thus far has been conducted through closed-door interviews of miners and mine managers.

“Congress envisioned a public hearing being the accident investigation, not a supplemental process that follows up on private interviews,” Oppegard said last week.

“A significant amount of this investigation has already been completed,” said Oppegard, who was a top aide to McAteer when McAteer ran the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. “It’s really a misnomer at this point to call it a public hearing, even though it’s public.”

Federal mine regulators have had the authority to call public hearings on mining accidents since passage of the first Federal Mine Safety and Health Act in 1969.

But, political appointees who have run MSHA have rarely used that authority to provide broad public access to agency investigations.

MSHA conducted a public hearing into the March 1972 explosion at the Scotia mine in Letcher County, Ky., and the March 1977 gangway collapse at the Porter Tunnel Mine in Schuylkill County, Pa.

The Sago public hearing was one condition that McAteer insisted upon when Manchin called him after the disaster and asked him to oversee the state’s investigation. But because public hearings are so rare, there is no book to guide how they are conducted. In fact, one of the numerous McAteer rule proposals that was killed by the Bush administration would have written guidelines for such hearings.

So, from the start — and especially over the last two weeks — setting the hearing format has been a behind-the-scenes battle among competing interests: federal regulators, Manchin, Sago families and International Coal Group. The political push was evidenced Monday by a glance at the seat markers on the hearing stage, which included conspicuous slots for a half-dozen state legislators who insisted in such placement and on the right to ask questions.

Oppegard said his chief concern is that neither MSHA nor the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training has subpoenaed ICG officials or company documents for the hearing.

“There is no guarantee that the witnesses you think are important are even going to show up, and if they do, then there is no way to make them answer all of the questions,” said Oppegard, who ran the last such public hearing that MSHA conducted, to examine the July 1999 explosion that injured 22 workers at the Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Co. plant in Gramercy, La.

The decision not to issue subpoenas was made, at least in part, based on direction instructions from Carte Goodwin, Manchin’s chief in-house lawyer.

Goodwin confirmed last week that the governor’s office saw no reason to issue subpoenas.

“If all of the witnesses were going to be available for questioning, and if all of the documents were going to be provided, subpoenas are unnecessary,” Goodwin said. “I don’t think you need a subpoena.”

Oppegard said he is also concerned that the length of the hearing has been reduced, from the weeklong event some organizers initially talked about, to two days.

“The governor promised from the get-go it was going to be a public investigation that left no stone unturned,” Oppegard said. “You don’t have time to overturn many stones in two days.”

Late last week, some family members of Sago miners became concerned when word came down from the governor’s office that they were not going to be allowed to ask questions at the hearing. Instead, families were told, they could submit questions in writing and McAteer would select which ones would be asked.

By Friday evening, that had changed, after officials realized that a Federal Register notice announcing the hearing had specifically said families could pick a representative to ask questions.

Lawyers for numerous Sago families have declined to publicly criticize any of the hearing preparations or the hearing format.

Most say that they want to wait and see how the hearing plays out before they say too much. Others specifically point to McAteer’s involvement — and his lifetime spent working for mine safety — as giving them reassurance that the hearing will be more than a public relations gimmick.

Over the last four months, the Sago disaster and its aftermath have spurred numerous calls for various mine safety reforms.

Those continued this week, as United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts called for new, nationwide testing of the emergency oxygen devices that Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. said failed him and his co-workers.

“Every miner working today must know, without the shadow of a doubt, that the [self-contained self-rescuer] that he or she straps to their belt before they go to work — and the ones that are stored underground for emergency use — will function properly,” Roberts said. “It’s MSHA’s job to provide miners with that security, and we call on MSHA to do its job.”

On Monday afternoon, Sago families filed through the gymnasium at Wesleyan, in a building named for now-U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who was president of the college from 1973 to 1976.

Organizers have carefully arranged the seating, putting media space in a second-floor balcony to try to honor the families’ request not to be interviewed during the hearings.

Behind the stage in the front of the room, black-and-white portraits of the 12 Sago victims look out across the room.

In the middle of the portraits, one frame contains a simple inscription: “In memory of the 12 good men who lost their lives in the Sago Mine January 2006.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of the Sago Mine disaster and mine safety is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact him, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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