Relatives of two of the 29 victims of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion are suing for the right to observe as government investigators interview witnesses.
The families of William I. Griffith and Ronald Maynor and the United Mine Workers sued the Mine Safety and Health Administration and director Joe Main in Charleston federal court Monday. The UMW says the plaintiff s want a court order barring witness interviews unless representatives of families and miners are present.
MSHA announced May 6 that it planned to interview witnesses in private. The agency had no immediate comment this week.
The union is participating in the investigation as the representative of some of the miners who worked at the Massey Energy mine. The April 5 blast was the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.
MSHA plans to conduct much of its initial investigation behind closed doors, then later hold two public hearings and other forums for public input. MSHA will use its subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify at the later hearings if necessary.
Main said the approach is driven by “a commitment to transparency and openness” and an effort to make sure the agency “does not impede any potential or ongoing criminal investigations into the blast.”
He was referring to a separate criminal probe of the explosion in which the FBI is interviewing dozens of current and former Massey employees.
Media organizations, labor unions and even Massey had called on the government to hold a full public hearing into the explosion, the nation’s worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.
Instead, MSHA plans one hearing where mine workers, Massey officials and others with knowledge of the Upper Big Branch mine will testify. A second hearing to discuss the leading theories as to what caused the explosion will include MSHA investigators and outside experts.
Family members of miners who died in the blast would have a chance to comment on the investigation and potential reforms in mine safety during a separate public forum. MSHA also would convene a townhall meeting to hear ideas on how to create a culture of safety at mining operations.
All the hearings and forums are likely to take place in West Virginia near the site of the accident in Montcoal, but no dates have been set.
In a statement, Massey said the agency “is choosing to repeat past mistakes of coal mine investigations 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.”
United Mine Workers president Cecil Roberts said he was “extremely disappointed” with the decision.
“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.
Roberts said his union planned to file a lawsuit challenging the decision to close the interview phase of the investigation.
But the Labor Department’s chief lawyer said MSHA had to be “very mindful” of a possible criminal probe happening at the same time.
“From a law enforcement perspective, there can be problems in having witness interviews in public,” said Patricia Smith, who serves as the solicitor of Labor.
Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and former regulator who practices law in Kentucky, called MSHA’s decision unfortunate.
“The bottom line is the process is going to be tainted from Day One with Massey lawyers being the only lawyers in the interviews,” Oppegard said.
A Labor Department offi- cial familiar with the investigation said the government is no longer allowing mine company lawyers or managers to be in the room while rank-and-file mine workers are being interviewed, even if a worker requests it. The official requested anonymity because the investigation protocol has not been made public.