House Asked to Delay Probe of Utah Mine
Washington Post - United StatesBy JENNIFER TALHELM
The Associated Press
September 11, 2007
WASHINGTON -- The Labor Department wants a House committee to delay an inquiry into the deadly Aug. 6 Utah coal mine collapse, fearing it could jeopardize the administration's own investigation.
The department is trying to slow down the House Education and Labor Committee, which plans to interview witnesses Wednesday and hold a hearing in October on the accident.
Nine people died in two cave-ins at the mine. The accident has led some to question the performance of the government's mine safety agency.
In a letter sent Tuesday to the committee's chairman, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the department argues that by asking their own questions, lawmakers could "taint" the Mine Safety and Health Administration's ability to bring civil or criminal charges. The agency is still investigating the accident.
Miller says he's going ahead anyway.
"The families of the miners who died and active miners all over the country deserve an objective and independent review of the tragedy that will help us to prevent future tragedies," Miller said in a statement.
The letter to Miller from the department's acting solicitor, Jonathan Snare, indicates that the agency has repeatedly asked the committee to hold off.
The committee's "parallel investigation" could prejudice witnesses, tip off potential targets, confuse the victims' families and the public and "possibly unfairly tarnish the reputation of innocent victims," Snare wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press.
It is the latest round in a conflict between Congress and the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Lawmakers have raised numerous questions about MSHA since the cave-in. The Senate held a hearing last week examining the agency's oversight of the mine operator and the government's handling of the accident.
Six miners trapped in the Aug. 6 collapse are presumed dead, entombed 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers, including an MSHA inspector, were killed in a second collapse on Aug. 16 while trying to tunnel to the men.
The accident comes a year after several high-profile coal mine disasters spurred a flurry of new mine safety laws.
"It is the committee's responsibility and obligation to conduct an independent investigation of this tragedy," Miller said.
Snare wrote that MSHA will cooperate, but he asked Miller to ensure that the information doesn't become public.