Judge Backs Union Role in Sago Probe

A federal judge says union members may join government investigators inside West Virginia's Sago Mine, site of a disaster that killed 14 workers. As Anna Sale of WVPR reports, union members were blocked from entering the mine Wednesday and told they couldn't monitor an investigator's interviews last week.

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The investigation into the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia is underway again after being sidetracked in court. A federal judge has forced the mine's owner, International Coal Group, to allow the United Mine Workers Union to accompany government investigators. There have been a number of confrontations between the union and the mine company. Anna Sale of West Virginia Public Radio reports on what this latest disagreement was about.

ANNA SALE: State and federal investigators had hoped to enter the Sago mine for the first time yesterday. Instead, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration went to court after ICG officials blocked the United Mine Workers from entering the mine. Robert Friend is the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of MSHA.

ROBERT FRIEND: We side with the Mine Act and the Mine Act states that miners have a right to select a miner's representative so that's the side we always come down on.

SALE: The Federal Mine Act allows coal miners to designate representatives in mine investigations. It specifically outlines that those representatives can participate in the physical examination of a coal mine. In dispute, it's just who can claim to legitimately represent Sago miners. Cecil Roberts is the President of the United Mine Workers of America or the UMW.

CECIL ROBERTS: It's a clear violation of the law for Sago management to take this action.

SALE: The Sago mine is a non-union operation and its mine is on company property, but Roberts says that some current Sago Miners and two families of miners who died have asked the UMW to represent them in the investigation. But the union won't say who they're representing for fear of retaliation against the miners by the company.

ROBERTS: Miners must sign a letter saying that they want the union to be their representative. They give us the letter, we take it to MSHA, the federal government. And we did receive an agreement from the federal government that they would keep these names confidential to protect them.

SALE: MSHA recognized the UMW as valid miner's representatives. But Robert Friend says MSHA has also recognized other representatives.

FRIEND: Several of the miners have designated some of their co-workers as their miner's representative.

SALE: Officials at ICG declined to be interviewed. But in a statement yesterday, ICG CEO Ben Hatfield said his company had been denied its legal right to confirm the UMW's petitioners are mine employees. He said Sago employees had asked to be represented by co-workers, not the union. ICG and the UMW have been publicly trading barbs since last week. Roberts says some Sago miners asked the UMW to represent them in the investigation about two weeks ago, but when state and federal investigation teams started closed interviews last week, they were not immediately included.

ROBERTS: We did not receive notification about these interviews until the Governor's office contacted me.

SALE: When two union officials attempted to join the interviews, the company objected. They were asked to leave. By the end of last week, ICG agreed to also sit out the interviews, something Ben Hatfield reiterated Monday during a Senate Subcommittee hearing.

BEN HATFIELD: We certainly have no fear of leaving the interviews directly between the government representatives and our people. We've encouraged them to be very open and honest with everything they know and we certainly are willing to absent ourselves from all the interviews so long as the people interviewing our people are truly the Mines Safety and Health Administration group and the West Virginia Department of Miner Health and Safety.

SALE: Once underground, the investigation team hopes to collect physical evidence to help determine the cause of the January 2nd explosion. UMW officials and Sago miners representing their coworkers joined the state and federal investigators this afternoon.

For NPR News, I'm Anna Sale in Charleston, West Virginia.

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