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Upper Big Branch hearings, documents on hold per DOJ request

January 20, 2011

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Washington – Public hearings and the release of documents related to the April 5 Upper Big Branch Mine-South tragedy will be postponed in deference to the Department of Justice, Solicitor of Labor M. Patricia Smith said Jan. 14.

DOJ is conducting its own investigation into the West Virginia mine explosion that killed 29 miners, and the department asked the Mine Safety and Health Administration to postpone any public hearings. Another earlier request asked MSHA not to release transcripts of witness testimony gathered thus far in the agency's UBB investigation.

Quoting a letter from the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of West Virginia, Smith said she was told "any public disclosure at this time 'poses a serious risk of hindering the criminal investigation'" DOJ was pursuing.

Smith said the requests would be honored.

Controversy

Shortly after the explosion and amid criticism about a lack of transparency in its investigation, MSHA announced plans to host several public meetings and release interviews conducted in the UBB investigation.

Both plans came with a caveat – the public hearings would take place after the private interviews were conducted, and those interviews would not be released publicly if confidentiality was requested.

This decision prompted the Triangle, VA-based United Mine Workers of America to file a lawsuit (.pdf file) challenging the agency's decision to interview witnesses in private.

"We believe it is imperative for the families of the victims of this tragedy to be able to hear the evidence that will be gathered in these interviews for themselves," UMWA President Cecil E. Roberts said in a May 10 press release.

The union's challenge was later rejected by the court.

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