Court upholds ruling for UMW in Sago probe

A federal appeals court on Tuesday declined to block a judge’s ruling allowing United Mine Workers representatives to take part in the Sago Mine disaster investigation.The U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down International Coal Group’s request to suspend the lower-court ruling pending a full appeal.Last week, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell in Elkins upheld the right of several Sago miners to designate the UMW as their representative in the investigation.Mine owner International Coal Group had objected to the UMW taking part, saying that the union wanted to use the investigation to jump-start organization efforts at the mine.ICG officials refused to allow union safety experts onto company property to go underground, forcing the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration to seek an injunction from Maxwell.“We’re gratified that the court of appeals ruled in our favor,” said acting MSHA chief David G. Dye. “MSHA is continuing its investigation into the Sago Mine accident at full speed and we have welcomed the contributions miners and their representatives have made throughout this investigation.”Twelve miners died and another was critically injured following the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County. It was the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years. A joint investigation by MSHA and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training is continuing this week.Gov. Joe Manchin has promised that the state will take the usual step of holding a public hearing as part of the Sago investigation.And on Tuesday, Manchin committed to the state also holding a public hearing on the deaths of two miners in a Jan. 19 fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
Interviews of surviving miners and other witnesses will continue to be held behind closed doors.Also Tuesday, the governor’s office said that emergency rules to implement Manchin’s new mine rescue law would not be filed before the end of January as the governor had hoped.The law created a rapid response system for mine rescue and requires operators to report all mine emergencies within 15 minutes. It also forces operators to provide additional emergency oxygen supplies, along with communications equipment and miner tracking systems, in all underground operations.Most of the details were left to Doug Conaway, director of the state mine safety office, to work out in emergency rules.Lara Ramsburg, the governor’s communications director, said that the rules would be filed with the secretary of state sometime today.
“We are tweaking them,” said Carte Goodwin, Manchin’s general counsel. “We want to make sure we have everything ready to go.”Also on Tuesday, MSHA officials said that they would reverse a new policy that had withheld from the public copies of the notes agency inspectors take concerning mine safety violations.In the wake of the Sago and Aracoma accidents, members of Congress have called on MSHA to reopen to public scrutiny information that the Bush administration had decided to keep secret.In a letter to House Education and the Workforce Chairman John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, Dye said that inspectors’ notes would once again be released in response to Freedom of Information Act requests.“This policy will be effective immediately and will, of course, apply to information relevant to the Sago Mine and Alma No. 1 Mine accidents,” Dye wrote.To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
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