OVER and over again, Gov. Joe Manchin has promised the families of the miners who died at Sago that their deaths would not be in vain. He also promised that the state would conduct an open inquiry into the causes of the disaster. He cannot keep the first promise without also keeping the second.On Tuesday, however, we learned that interviews on the disaster would be held in private. This is not acceptable.The state will hold a separate investigation that will focus on ways to improve mine safety and avoid future disasters. But interviews with miners and others involved at Sago will not be open to the public.Most West Virginians, when they heard Manchin’s original promise, probably thought that they would get a chance to hear what the miners and others at the scene had to say.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has the power to convene public hearings and to subpoena witnesses. It has chosen not to use that power. With so much at stake and so many lives lost, we cannot understand why the agency is not doing that.
Furthermore, we worry about the miners. Even though they have designated officials from the United Mine Workers of America to be their advocates in the process, they will still be surrounded — and far outnumbered — by government and mine officials during their interviews. It’s an intimidating atmosphere. They deserve the public’s support and they deserve to be interviewed under circumstances that encourage them to tell all they know without fear.On Jan. 9, MSHA announced in a news release that its joint investigation with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training would include public hearings. Manchin also asserted that, in contrast to past investigations conducted in private, “the victims’ families and the people of West Virginia deserve to have their voices heard with regard to this tragedy.”We couldn’t agree more. So why are the first interviews being held out of the public gaze?MSHA also apparently is choosing not to invoke its power to compel people to testify or to hand over documents that could help untangle the Sago mess.The entire web of interlocking responsibilities of state and federal agencies, and the agendas of each, is confusing. It’s possible that, in the days following the disaster, Manchin and others may have been misunderstood. The principle still stands: openness is crucial.Technically, Manchin can say he is living up to his promise by conducting another investigation later on into the general questions about mine safety arising from this disaster. But that’s not good enough. We urge him to pressure MSHA and the state agency to open up this process so all West Virginians can learn the truth.