The United Mine Workers union wants state and federal officials to subpoena witnesses for the ongoing investigation of the Sago Mine disaster.UMW officials say that subpoenas would stop witnesses who appear voluntarily from forcing union officials to leave the room during investigation interviews.Cecil Roberts, the UMW president, asked for the action Tuesday in a letter to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.“An investigation that relies on voluntary statements will only work if the miners’ representatives can participate,” Roberts said in the letter. “So far, however, the properly designated miners’ representatives have been effectively excluded from all the witness statements.”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.For more than a week, state and federal investigators have focused on their on-site examination underground at the Sago Mine.Interviews of at least eight surviving miners and some mine managers were conducted in late January and are expected to continue this week.
The Sago Mine, formerly operated by Anker Energy, is a non-union operation.But several Sago workers exercised their right to representation during the disaster probe, and appointed the UMW as their representative. Two families of Sago victims also asked the UMW to represent them during the investigation.Initially, International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine, refused to allow UMW safety experts onto company property to take part in the underground inspection.A federal judge in Elkins ordered ICG to back down, and a federal appeals court declined to immediately overturn that ruling.Under MSHA’s own investigation guidelines, anyone being interviewed can ask to give a confidential statement — or can simply refuse to answer any questions.In his letter, Roberts said that miners’ representatives are “supposed to have the right to participate in all aspects of accident investigations, including witness interviews.“The miners we represent at Sago have been deprived of their right to have us participate in the interviews, “Roberts said. “We remain eager to fulfill our statutory role as their representative, and only ask that we be allowed to do so.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.