UPDATED, 2:30 p.m. —
Labor Department officials have confirmed that they have called off public hearings into the mine disaster. He’s the statement from Labor Solicitor Patricia Smith:
The Department of Justice requested this week that the Mine Safety and Health Administration postpone any plans to hold public hearings and, in a prior request, asked that we not release transcripts of witness testimony gathered thus far in the Upper Big Branch Mine accident investigation. A letter from R. Booth Goodwin II, the U.S. attorney with the Southern District of West Virginia, explains that any public disclosure at this time ‘poses a serious risk of hindering the criminal investigation into events at UBB.’
“From the very beginning, we have exercised extreme caution to ensure that DOJ has had every opportunity to run its own investigation. We have no intention of jeopardizing those efforts. Therefore, we’ve agreed to honor that department’s request. We remain committed to holding public hearings and making the transcripts available once we are assured by the criminal prosecutors that doing so will not impede their ability to bring any wrongdoers to justice.”
U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin just issued the following statement:
Shortly after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, the Department of Labor through the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) announced that it would, at some point in its investigation, release all transcripts of witness interviews and conduct public hearings unless those steps would hinder the ongoing criminal investigation.
MSHA has advised my office, which is conducting the criminal investigation, that it has substantially concluded its interviews and is contemplating moving forward with public hearings. I have advised the Department of Labor and MSHA that release of the transcripts and holding of public hearings at which testimony would be taken could hinder the criminal investigation and any potential prosecution.
It would also be inappropriate to release only a portion of the transcripts or hold hearings where only select testimony is taken because it is not possible to determine at this time the bearing that information may have on the ongoing criminal investigation as it progresses. Therefore, after careful consideration, we have asked the Department of Labor not to release the transcripts or conduct public hearings that would elicit testimony at this time.
This announcement comes as MSHA prepares for its first in-person update for the Upper Big Branch families since September, scheduled for Tuesday, and after Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main promised a series of public hearings and forums about the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
MSHA officials have not yet responded to requests for comment on Goodwin’s announcement, but the agency is expected to go along with the request. MSHA chief Joe Main has repeatedly said he would not do anything in his civil investigation that might jeopardize the ongoing criminal investigation at Upper Big Branch.
Labor Department Solicitor Patricia Smith is expected to attend Tuesday night’s meeting to explain the decision to Upper Big Branch families, and it seems likely that today’s announcement was intended to soften the ground a bit for Smith.