The agency said the public hearings would commence once the initial witness interviews were completed. An MSHA spokesperson confirmed to various media outlets this week that those discussions began May 10 at the Mine Safety and Health Academy in Beaver, West Virginia.
“MSHA has a number of tools in its toolbox to investigate this tragedy that claimed 29 miners’ lives,” US secretary of labor Hilda Solis said.
“These include the physical inspection of the mine, public hearings with subpoenas and investigative interviews that protect witnesses with knowledge of what happened in the mine.
“During the investigation of the Upper Big Branch disaster, MSHA will use all of the tools at our disposal.”
The agency will use its authority under the Mine Safety and Health Act to hold public hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents – an authority used only twice before.
One public hearing will question witnesses with knowledge of the mine, its operations and the explosion itself, while the other will focus on the technical aspects of the blast based on evidence including a physical examination.
MSHA said the latter public hearing would allow its investigators to present their theory or theories and allow outside experts and the public to comment. All comments will be reviewed by the federal team and will be made public when its report is published.
“The purposes of the public hearings will be to (1) discuss the possible cause(s), including possible contributory causes, of the explosion and (2) identify and develop corrective actions, procedures and strategies to prevent the occurrence of similar accidents,” the agency said, noting that the meeting’s date and location will be published in the Federal Register at least seven days beforehand and those with knowledge of the operation will receive participation invitations.
All the questioning in the public forums will be conducted by federal staff, but possibly by state investigators as well. An impartial hearing officer not affiliated with any involved party will also be selected by the secretary and announced before the event.
“In addition to testimonial evidence, the MSHA panel will be able to subpoena documentary evidence that MSHA believes can help determine the cause of the accident,” the agency said.
“Members of the families of the fallen miners will have an opportunity to offer their thoughts about the explosion, in person at a public forum, in writing or electronically … these public statements will be made available to the public and media on MSHA’s website and will be considered in the final accident investigation report.
“Family liaisons appointed immediately following the explosion will remain in regular contact with the families, and their input into the investigative process is encouraged.”
The town hall meeting, also being planned by MSHA, will allow for idea exchange on creating a safety culture at all mining operations as well as to gather recommendations on enhancing mine safety as a whole.
The agency confirmed that the physical examination had not yet commenced because mine gases produced by heating and/or fires continued to cause concerns. Federal and state agencies are still working with the mine owner to stabilize conditions underground.
“MSHA is committed to ensuring that the process moves forward in a timely and transparent manner, and will also make sure that its investigative process does not hinder any potential ongoing criminal investigations into the tragedy that happened at the Upper Big Branch mine,” assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health Joseph Main said.
MSHA called for UBB lawsuit dismissal
In related news, MSHA has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the United Mine Workers of America and some victims’ families seeking to make all phases of the UBB investigation public.
According to the Associated Press, the agency is arguing that no outside party has the rights to the control or directing of an investigation, and that the court does not have jurisdiction to rule on the union’s demands.
MSHA and director Main filed documentation with the US District Court in Beckley against the UMWA as well as the families of two miners who were among the 29 killed in the explosion.
The AP noted that MSHA was not using subpoena power to compel testimony, but rather looking for "sworn voluntary testimony from willing participants", and the plaintiffs "are at liberty to do the same," according to the suit.
Federal officials maintained that the plaintiffs were not being denied participation in the process, just in the initial interviews, copies of which would be made available later and could be used as lawsuit evidence.
The agency also told the news service that if the UMWA’s demands were permitted, Massey could want equal access. Allowing such open participation, it argued, could limit the candid nature of the interviews if the witnesses feared intimidation or retribution.
"Subordinating MSHA's investigative powers to private interests would be disastrous to the investigative process and make a mockery of Congress's mandate to MSHA," it reportedly said.