House committee subpoenas labor secretary for documents on mine accident

Monday, September 24th 2007, 5:59 pm
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A House committee has issued a subpoena demanding that Labor Secretary Elaine Chao give up documents related to the Aug. 6 coal mine collapse in Utah that killed nine people. Lawmakers say they have exhausted other options.

Last month, the House Education and Labor Committee asked for a slew of records related to the department's oversight of the Crandall Canyon mine, including internal communications with the mine operators.

A spokesman for Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said Monday that while Chao's agency has given the committee some of the requested information, it hasn't yet produced the internal documents.

The committee has no choice but to subpoena the information, Miller spokesman Tom Kiley said. Chao has until 5 p.m. on Oct. 9 to produce the records.

``Those communications are vital to the committee's investigation,'' Kiley said. ``The committee intends to conduct a comprehensive, independent investigation of the tragedy so that we can help learn what steps we can take to prevent future tragedies.''

Labor Department spokesman David James called the subpoena ``political grandstanding.''

The committee's demand ``is very disappointing in light of the department's extensive good-faith effort to respond to the chairman's voluminous document requests,'' James said.

Nine people died in two cave-ins at the mine. Six miners trapped on Aug. 6 are presumed dead and remain entombed 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers, including a government mine safety inspector, were killed in a second collapse on Aug. 16 while trying to tunnel to the men.

The accident came a year after several high-profile coal mine disasters spurred a flurry of new mine-safety laws. It has led some to question the performance of the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Miller's committee and a Senate panel both will hold hearings next week about the disaster.

Among other things, lawmakers want to know why MSHA allowed certain mining techniques there, which experts have said likely contributed to the Aug. 6 collapse.

Both cave-ins are believed to have been caused by a ``bump,'' or spontaneous explosion from the mine roof or wall, caused by pressure from the heavy mountain above. Bumps are common in Utah's deep mines.

Experts have said the Crandall Canyon mine was particularly prone to bumps because the operators were mining the last of the coal there, which weakened supports and put extreme pressure on the roof.

Miller's committee already has clashed with the agency.

Earlier this month, the department asked Miller's committee to delay its investigation, saying that by asking their own questions, lawmakers could ``taint'' MSHA's ability to bring civil or criminal charges. The agency is still investigating the accident.

Miller said he would go ahead with the investigation, anyway.