By Ken Ward Jr.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Federal and state investigators looking into the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster are being hampered by Massey Energy employees who aren’t showing up for voluntary interviews, officials said Wednesday.
At least half of the Massey workers asked so far have not appeared for their scheduled closed-door sessions with investigators from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training.
“There have been some who have not shown up,” said Ron Wooten, director of the state mine safety agency.
Interviews of employees of Massey and its operating subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., began last week at MSHA’s National Mine Health and Safety Academy near Beckley.
Wooten said that through Tuesday, seven of the 14 Massey or Performance employees who had been asked did not appear at their scheduled interviews.
MSHA officials did not respond Wednesday to requests for comment on the interviews.
Under federal law, MSHA does not have authority to use subpoenas to force witnesses to appear for the closed-door interviews. MSHA has subpoena power only if it is trying to force witnesses to appear at public hearings or interview sessions.
State law gives Wooten’s action authority to subpoena witnesses for the private interviews, but so far the Manchin administration has not exercised that authority.
“Obviously, we have subpoena power,” Wooten said. “If we need to use subpoena power, we will.”
But, Wooten said his agency wants to issue subpoenas as a last resort, and only if specific witnesses who don’t voluntarily appear are determined to have information that is vitally important to the investigation.
Last week, U.S. District Judge Irene C. Berger threw out a lawsuit in which the United Mine Workers union and the families of two miners who died in the disaster sought to force MSHA to conduct witness interviews in public.
Twenty-nine miners died in the April 5 explosion, making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
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