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Dispute over union stalls investigation of mine explosion

Workers split on who will represent them

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Plans to begin gathering evidence in the Sago Mine fell apart yesterday when International Coal Group Inc. refused to let members of the United Mine Workers of America accompany state and federal investigators underground.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, which had recognized the union as the legal representative for several workers at the non-union mine, went to US District Court in Elkins seeking an order to grant the union access. The hearing was scheduled to resume today.

The union's involvement has been a point of contention for nearly two weeks. More than 90 percent of the company's miners are being represented not by the UMWA, but by three co-workers.

''Some of the Sago miners requested that the United Mine Workers be their representatives for the purposes of this investigation, and they have a right to be there," said Ed Clair, associate solicitor for Mine Safety and Health. ''Together, the state and MSHA made a commitment to the families that we would conduct a fair, open investigation, and we decided we needed to take this extraordinary step to keep that commitment."

The company, meanwhile, accused the federal agency of yielding to the union's political influence and violating federal law by refusing to disclose the identities of the union-represented workers. The company has said it will not punish those workers but it wants to verify their employment.

''International Coal Group strongly objects to the transparent attempts by UMWA leadership to use the Sago accident as an opportunity to advance their organizing efforts and rally their political influence," president Ben Hatfield said. ''Such conduct is wholly inappropriate and disrespectful of the tragic circumstances."

Investigators had hoped to enter the mine yesterday, more than three weeks after an explosion that left 12 men dead.

Hazardous levels of carbon monoxide and other gases had to be vented and water had to be pumped out before investigators could get in, but the mine was finally considered safe.

Miners who are not represented by the UMWA issued a statement late yesterday, saying they do not want the union involved in the investigation.

The group's spokesman, Craig Newsome, said more than 90 miners have signed a petition declaring they will represent themselves.

Investigators are expected to search for such things as scorch marks and melted plastic, to examine equipment for signs of a short circuit, to establish whether the methane detectors were working and to take air samples to check for highly combustible coal dust. They also would track the victims' footprints.

The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., emerged from a light coma yesterday and is now able to eat soft foods. Dr. Larry Roberts said McCloy, 26, has developed a slight fever but remains in fair condition. McCloy is able to respond to simple commands and follow movements with his eyes.

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