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Sec. Hilda Solis

Sec. Hilda Solis

Posted: May 17, 2010 01:40 PM

Justice for the Upper Big Branch Miners

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In the past six weeks, I have made a number of trips to West Virginia to meet with the families of the 29 men who died at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine. Although there is nothing I can do to eliminate their pain and suffering, I can, as the nation's top cop on the workplace beat, make sure that we learn the truth about what happened on April 5, and bring those responsible to justice.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration is taking an aggressive and unique approach to the Upper Big Branch Mine investigation -- one that utilizes every possible tool we have to get the truth, ensure transparency and accountability, and preserve the ability of federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges if it is determined that crimes were committed.

Our dedication to transparency begins with the unprecedented number of public hearings we will conduct, including one where miners, contractors, mine officials and others with knowledge of the Upper Big Branch Mine will participate. We will use subpoena power if necessary to ensure that happens. Other public hearings will explore the technical aspects of the explosion, as well as allow family members of the deceased to voice their thoughts and suggest potential reforms in mine safety law. We also will host a town hall meeting to promote the exchange of ideas on how best to create a culture of safety -- and practical ways to improve safety -- at mining operations. These events will be open to the community, as well as to anyone else interested in justice and mine safety, via live webcasts.

This is a new approach to openness and public participation, and unlike any other accident investigation of this magnitude. But there are other elements of the investigation -- particularly the first round of witness interviews -- that, in order to maintain the integrity of the investigation process and the safety and trust of the witnesses, must remain private. And here is why: No smart cop would let a possible defendant sit in on witness interviews, and no one expects cops to "cooperate" or "coordinate" with potential criminals.

I welcome the ongoing involvement of the FBI, the U.S Attorney's Office and the Department of Justice in this matter, and will make sure that our efforts do not impede their ability to investigate and prosecute any criminal wrongdoing. While we value transparency, I will not allow the evidence gained during our investigation to taint a potential grand jury process, telegraph to possible criminal defendants what other witnesses are saying, or provide potential criminal defendants with a roadmap to avoid prosecution, evade conviction and escape justice.

In this investigation we must ensure that witnesses can tell their stories candidly, without fear of intimidation or retaliation by anyone adversely affected by their testimony. But something else, too: This information will be shared with other federal law enforcement authorities who may use it to identify bad actors in potential criminal actions. I have made it clear that company officials and company lawyers will not be allowed in the room during interviews, so it was not surprising when Massey's corporate office criticized our process. I refuse to compromise this investigation in any way or jeopardize our pursuit of justice.

If those who put miners' safety at risk see that we are serious about putting them in jail, I am willing to bet that they will change their ways.

 

Follow Sec. Hilda Solis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@HildaSolisDOL