Judge: Union Reps Can Enter Sago Mine

A federal judge has granted the Mine Safety and Health Administration's request to allow representatives from the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) to enter the Sago Mine to participate in the agency's investigation of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 West Virginia coal miners.

Yesterday, Judge Robert Maxwell of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia granted an injunction against the operator of the Sago Mine Wolf Run Mining Co., a subsidiary of Ashland, Ky.-based International Coal Group Inc. (ICG) after the company prohibited union representatives from entering the mine with MSHA. According to the agency, some of the Sago miners requested that the United Mine Workers of America be their representatives during the investigation.

"MSHA will take every step to protect the miners' interest in a fair and open investigation into this tragic accident including ensuring that the UMWA can participate fully as the miners' representative," said MSHA Acting Administrator David Dye. "We made a commitment to the miners and the families on this. We are elated that the court agreed that the rights of miners' representatives must be protected."

The judge's decision infuriated ICG, which called the union's involvement "a thinly veiled effort to interfere with the proper conduct of the Sago Mine accident investigation in a self-serving and improper attempt to launch an organizing campaign."

According to the company, 90 hourly employees at Sago signed a petition that asks MSHA to allow three of their co-workers to serve as miner representatives during the investigation instead of the union. ICG says the 90 employees represent 93 percent of the mine's active hourly work force.

ICG, in a Jan. 26 statement, said it plans to appeal the court's ruling, although it pledged to comply with the injunction and "continue working closely with state and federal officials in moving the investigation forward expeditiously."

"In sharp contrast to MSHA's decision to suspend the investigation while they pursued court action against us, we will not allow our appeal to delay the investigation," the company said.

MSHA, which expected to begin its underground investigation yesterday afternoon, pointed out that Section 103(f) of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 "provides that miners' representatives can accompany MSHA investigators 'during the physical inspection of any coal or other mine … for the purpose of aiding such inspection and to participate in pre- or post-inspection conferences held at the mine.'"

"The law if very clear on this," said UMWA President Cecil Roberts. "The miners who requested UMWA representation did so properly and legally, and the judge ordered ICG to abide by the law and the regulations of the United States."

Roberts asserted that ICG "has spent countless hours and wasted valuable time with its baseless attacks on the UMWA."

"Meanwhile, the Sago miners, the families of the victims of this disaster and the American public cry out for answers," Roberts said. "Let's get on with it, and find the answers to the questions surrounding the tragedy."

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