CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Federal and state investigators began closed-door interviews Monday in their probe of the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, as a federal judge considered a suit filed by the United Mine Workers and two disaster victims who want the questioning done during a public hearing.
Officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners Health Safety and Training began by privately questioning some of their own inspectors who had visited the Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers.
In their suit seeking public sessions, lawyers for the UMW and the families of miners William Griffith and Ronald Maynor argued, among other things, that the closed-door interviews allow regulators to avoid difficult questions about the performance of government agencies charged with protecting miners.
"Without the participation of miners' representatives in the accident investigation interviews, MSHA's analysis of its own role, if any, will remain secretive and inherently suspect," states the lawsuit, filed against MSHA chief Joe Main Monday in federal court in Charleston.
U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger did not immediately rule or schedule a hearing on the suit's request for a temporary restraining order to stop the interviews until the case could be more fully argued.
The suit asks Berger to require MSHA to allow the miners' families and the UMW -- which was appointed as official miners' representative by several workers at the non-union mine -- to sit in on witness interviews. It also asks that Berger order the entire investigation conducted as a public hearing.
"We believe it is imperative for the families of the victims of this tragedy to be able to hear the evidence that will be gathered in these interviews for themselves," said UMW President Cecil Roberts.
"We also believe that the workers -- who will have to go back to work in that mine -- must be allowed to have their designated representatives in the interviews, asking questions and hearing testimony first-hand."
Last week, the Obama administration rejected calls from the UMW, miners' families, Massey Energy and the news media for a completely public investigation.