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Judge Says Union Can Be Part of Mine Probe

January 26, 2006 GMT

ELKINS, W.Va. (AP) _ Breaking an impasse that had briefly held up the investigation of the Sago Mine disaster, a federal judge ruled Thursday that officials with the United Mine Workers union can accompany state and federal investigators while they gather evidence underground.

The investigators were expected to venture into the mine in the afternoon _ one day later than planned _ to try to pinpoint the cause of the explosion Jan. 2 that led to the deaths of 12 coal miners.

Also Thursday, Gov. Joe Manchin signed into law new safety rules prompted by the Sago disaster and a coal mine fire Jan. 19 that killed two men. Among other things, mine companies must stockpile emergency oxygen canisters underground, and miners must wear electronic tracking devices that can be used to find them in an accident.

The legislation was introduced and unanimously approved in a single day Monday.

``We want to be the benchmark everyone looks to when they mine,″ Manchin said during the signing ceremony, attended by some of the miners’ relatives. ``The sacrifice you all have made will change mining in this country.″

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration took the owner of the Sago Mine, International Coal Group Inc., to court on Wednesday after ICG blocked union representatives from entering the nonunion mine. The coal company argued that the UMW’s presence would hinder the investigation and that the union was only trying to boost its organizing efforts.

But U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell ordered ICG to allow the union representatives to enter the mine, saying the UMW has decades of expertise in mine disasters to offer.

``There’s no question that the public interest is best served by a complete and thorough investigation into the occurrence of the problems at the Sago Mine,″ Maxwell said. ``There is a strong public interest in allowing miners to play a role in this investigation, as it is their health and safety that is at issue.″

The federal mine-safety agency has already recognized the UMW as a partner in the investigation, and the union has been sitting in on investigators’ interviews, over the coal company’s objections. The UMW is representing the interests of two of the 97 employees at the mine. Ninety-two others signed a petition to represent themselves.

All ICG operations in West Virginia, Kentucky, Maryland and Illinois are nonunion.

After the hearing, a union official denied the intent was to boost membership.

``We have one goal and the goal is to find out what the cause was, how to prevent it in the future and to make sure other miners and miners’ families don’t have to go through this,″ said Tim Baker, a UMW health and safety official.

MSHA attorney Tim Williams said the teams of investigators would probably need seven to 10 days underground to gather evidence. The company had asked the judge to impose a 10-day limit on the union’s involvement, but he refused to do so.