HUFFINGTON POST
03/28/2008 02:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Families Of Trapped Miners Rebuffed By Mine Safety Agency

The federal agency tasked with investigating the Utah mine collapse denied a request by the families of six trapped miners that the United Mine Workers represent them in the probe of the matter, the union said Monday.

All six of the families had signed documents designating the union as their representative in the investigation, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said. The Mine Safety and Health Administration told the union's attorneys on Monday that the agency would not heed the request.

"MSHA requires that miners sign these papers, but the miners in question were unable because the are trapped inside the mine," Smith said.

In a statement e-mailed to The Huffington Post, MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot defended the agency's actions, saying federal officials have spent "untold hours" briefing the families of the missing miners.

"We are disappointed that the UMWA is trying to use a law enforcement investigation for its own purposes," Fillpot said.

Six miners have been trapped underground since a large cave-in at the mine in the early hours of Aug. 6. Underground efforts to reach the miners have been suspended since a subsequent collapse killed three rescue workers on Aug 16.

In any accident investigation, miners have the legal right to designate the union as their representative during the probe, even if the miners are not union members. Crandall Canyon is not a union mine, and the UMWA does not represent workers there.

In the aftermath of the Sago tragedy in 2006, the owner of that mine sought to block the union's access to the site, even though a group of miners appointed the UMWA as their representative. MSHA attorneys obtained a court order that compelled the mine owner to allow union officials onto the property.

The distinction being drawn in the Crandall Canyon situation is that the miners' families -- rather than the miners themselves -- signed the documents requesting the union's participation.

"The Mine Safety and Health Act is clear on who can seek representation in these investigations," Fillpot said.

Despite MSHA's decision, Smith said the union would continue to take an active role in the Crandall Canyon probe.

"The families still want us to be their representatives as this investigation goes forward," Smith said.

He dismissed the notion that UMWA was attempting to unionize Crandall Canyon workers. Smith pointed out that the mine's owner, Bob Murray, has already announced that the mine would be permanently idled.

"That never was and never has been our goal there," Smith said.