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Sago investigation hits snag

The investigation into the Sago Mine disaster hit a potential snag Wednesday, when International Coal Group officials objected to United Mine Workers representatives sitting in on interviews and taking part in an examination of the mine site.

Two UMW officials were kicked out of at least one interview Wednesday morning, after a Sago Mine foreman asked to give his statement without the union representatives being in the room.

ICG officials also have threatened to not allow UMW safety experts onto company property to take part in the on-site part of the investigation.

The Sago Mine is a nonunion operation. But earlier this week, at least two miners who work there designated the UMW — as is their right under federal law — as their official “miners’ representative” to take part in disaster investigation.

“If there is nothing to hide here, it would seem to me that they would welcome everyone’s involvement — especially a union that represents members of the rescue teams that went underground to try to save these miners,” said UMW President Cecil Roberts.

In a prepared statement, ICG alleged that the union “seeks to interfere” in the investigation being conducted by state and federal mine safety officials.

ICG alleged that the union is trying to “revive organizing efforts that have floundered for more than a decade.

“We believe that the UMWA’s attempt to influence the investigation will only interfere with efforts by state and federal agencies to determine the true cause of this tragic accident,” ICG said in its statement. “The state and federal authorities are fully capable of conducting a comprehensive investigation, unencumbered by the UMWA’s ulterior motives.”

On Tuesday, officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training began interviews into the cause of the Jan. 2 blast that killed 12 workers and critically injured another deep inside the ICG mine south of Buckhannon.

So far, investigators believe the blast occurred in a mined-out, sealed area of the mine.

Gov. Joe Manchin has promised a public hearing on the disaster, but state and federal officials are interviewing miners, company officials and others behind closed doors.

MSHA officials have declined to explain why they did not invoke a section of the 1977 federal Mine Safety and Health Act to conduct the entire investigation in a public hearing.

During a 20-minute media briefing Wednesday afternoon, MSHA announced that George Fesak, director of program evaluation and information resources for the agency, would lead an internal review of MSHA’s inspections and enforcement record at the Sago Mine before the explosion.

Richard Gates, head of MSHA’s investigation team, said Wednesday that officials have so far interviewed four Sago miners.

Interviews are expected to continue through the end of the week.

ICG officials are continuing to pump water out of the Sago Mine, and investigators hope to get inside in another three to four days, Gates said.

Efforts to begin the on-site investigation could prompt a showdown about the UMW’s involvement in the investigation.

Roberts said that ICG officials asked MSHA on Wednesday to issue a “pre-emptive citation” for the failure to allow UMW officials on mine property to take part in the investigation.

According to Roberts, that action would allow ICG to appeal the citation and seek a court ruling that would block UMW participation.

During MSHA’s briefing, Gates said only that his agency has recognized the UMW as a representative of some of the Sago Miners. “They will be afforded all the investigation rights as per the mine act,” Gates said.

Under federal law, “miners’ representatives” are given broad rights to take part in inspections and accident investigations and to take other actions to protect workers’ health and safety.

MSHA regulations state that anyone can be the official miners’ representative if they are asked to do so by two or more miners at the operation in question.

A miners’ representative is allowed to sit in on accident investigation interviews, and take part in on-site examinations of the mine where the accident occurred.

Under MSHA rules, coal operators and their lawyers are generally allowed to sit in on interviews. Also, any person being interviewed may ask to give a confidential statement, or to have any person present excluded from the interview.

In its accident investigation handbook, MSHA considered the possibility that the UMW would be asked to serve as a miners’ representative at a nonunion operation following a major accident.

“In most instances, the miners’ representative identification is a straight-forward matter, and they are easily identified,” the handbook states. “A mine that has not had a bona fide representative of miners prior to the accident can create unusual situations where miners at the mine request representation after the accident.”

In its prepared statement, ICG said the UMW is “attempting to manipulate” those rules “to exploit the tragedy at the Sago Mine for their own purposes.”

Roberts replied, “ICG may not like the law, and they may not like the fact that their employees have designated the UMWA as their representative in this investigation. But that does not change the fact that the law is what it is. Just because ICG doesn’t like the law doesn’t give them license to trample it.

“This isn’t what these families deserve,” Roberts said. “It’s not what the miners who will have to return to work in this mine deserve, and this isn’t what the public deserves.”

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


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