CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal investigators will conduct key portions of their probe of the Upper Big Banch Mine disaster behind closed doors, but will plan a series of public events the Obama administration said would "bolster transparency and openness."
The announcement Thursday by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis drew harsh criticism from the United Mine Workers union, mine owner Massey Energy and families of miners killed in the April 5 explosion.
"People from all sides of this issue in the coalfields want this investigation to be fully and completely open," said UMW President Cecil Roberts. "The families of the victims do, the UMW does, the media does, and even the company said it does.
"The only people who don't want this to be completely open are the government agencies, and that, frankly, continues a bad practice that we expected would change under this administration," Roberts said.
Massey said the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration "is choosing to repeat past mistakes by refusing due process and failing to build the public's confidence that the hearings will be fair and develop a complete and balanced public record."
Federal law gives MSHA authority to conduct accident investigations through public hearings, but the agency has seldom done so.
The UMW, Massey, at least two miners' widows and a coalition of media organizations, including The Charleston Gazette, had called for MSHA to hold the witness interviews in a public hearing.
Solis rejected those requests, saying the interviews would be private with transcripts being released later unless those being questioned asked for confidentiality or MSHA believed the release would harm ongoing criminal investigations.
Later, MSHA plans to hold a public hearing where mine officials, miners and others would testify. The agency also plans a second, more technical hearing to examine theories of what caused the explosion.