WHEELING — Federal and state investigators are negotiating with International Coal Group to force the release of records about the company’s internal investigation of the Sago Mine disaster, officials said this week.Government lawyers and investigators are trying to work out a deal to obtain the records — as well as testimony from ICG officials — for a Manchin administration public hearing on the Sago disaster scheduled to start May 2.“We certainly want to see what they have,” said Bob Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training hope to obtain the records without having to issue a subpoena, a legal request that would compel ICG to turn over information. ICG could fight the subpoena and prompt a courtroom battle that could complicate plans for the public hearing.“It could be that the company will just give that to us,” said Friend, who was here late this week for the International Mining Health and Safety Symposium at Wheeling Jesuit University.Last week, MSHA published a Federal Register notice that provided the first real details of how regulators will conduct the Sago public hearing, to be held at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon.The notice said the hearing would be May 2-3, but state officials have said it could run into a third day. Originally, officials talked about holding a weeklong hearing.Shortly after the Sago disaster, Gov. Joe Manchin hired Fairmont native Davitt McAteer, who was MSHA chief during the Clinton administration, to lead the state’s inquiry into the accident and organize a rare public hearing.Under federal law, MSHA may conduct entire fatality investigations through public hearings, but agency officials have rarely done so. In the Sago inquiry, government officials conducted more than 70 closed-door interviews. Transcripts of those sessions were made public only after The Charleston Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents. At first, state officials released a limited number of the transcripts, but then made others widely available after the Gazette obtained them and posted them on the Internet.
In its Federal Register notice, MSHA said state and federal officials would question witnesses at the Sago public hearing. A representative of the Sago victims’ families also will be able to submit questions for witnesses, the notice said.In mid-March, ICG issued a news release declaring that, “The [Sago] explosion was ignited by lightning and fueled by methane that naturally accumulated in an abandoned area of the mine that had been recently sealed.”ICG said it could not explain how any electrical charges from the lightning got into the sealed area. The company said it has completed its investigation, but has refused to make any company investigators available to answer questions about that inquiry.During an interview with government investigators last month, ICG Vice President Sam Kitts repeatedly refused to discuss the company’s investigation in any detail. At one point, Kitts said the company did not have a formal investigative team.Maraco M. Rajkovich, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer who represented several ICG employees during investigative interviews, said Kitts was not authorized by the company to answer questions about the investigation. Rajkovich said he did not know who was authorized to answer such questions.McAteer said state officials want to find out what information led ICG to conclude that lightning was the cause of the disaster.
“They have suggested that they have an answer,” McAteer said this week. “We’d like to know what their answer is and what they base it on.”Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of mine safety and the Sago disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.