'Unprecedented Access' Promised in Mine Safety Hearings

MSHA did not provide dates of two public hearings into the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion but said Tuesday that they'll be streamed online.

Two public hearings stemming from the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion on April 5 will be held -- one where witnesses with knowledge of the mine, the mine operations, and the explosion testify, the other focused on technical aspects of the explosion based on the physical examination of the West Virginia coal mine and other evidence. MSHA announced them Tuesday but did not give their dates. Instead, the date and location for each will be announced at least a week in advance by notice in the Federal Register. Mine employees, company officials, federal inspectors, and others with knowledge of the incident will be invited to participate, and subpoenas will be issued if necessary, said the agency's announcement.

MSHA announced them the same day Massey Energy, which owns the mine, held its annual meeting in Richmond, Va.

The investigative team still has not entered the mine to examine it because of concern about gases caused by heating and/or fires, the agency said.

"All questioning at the public hearings will be conducted by a panel of MSHA and possibly state of West Virginia investigators," it said. "In addition, the secretary of labor will select an impartial hearing officer who is not affiliated with MSHA, the state of West Virginia, the company or any other interested party to chair a hearing. The hearing officer and those participating in the panel will be announced publicly prior to the hearing."

The announcement promised "unprecedented access for the public and the media, both in person and via streaming video on the Internet," adding that MSHA will post testimony and evidence at www.msha.gov and will accept public comments to be included in the final accident investigation report.

MSHA has the authority to hold public hearings and subpoena witnesses and documents under Section 103(b) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, and has used that power twice in its history.

Relatives of the 29 miners who died will be able to speak about the explosion at a public forum or in writing; these statements also will be made available on MSHA's website and will be considered in the final accident investigation report. MSHA also said it will conduct a town hall meeting to share best practices for creating a culture of safety at all mining operations and to gather recommendations for improving mine safety overall.

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