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Media seek access to mine hearings

The Deseret Morning News and other Utah news outlets filed a complaint in federal court Monday asking that the court order Elaine L. Chao, U.S. secretary of labor, to conduct investigations into the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in public.

The complaint contends that there have been reports that the Mine Safety and Health Administration bears "some significant responsibility" for the Aug. 6 accident that killed six miners and, later, three rescuers.

There also have been allegations from various parties, such as the United Mine Workers of America and relatives of the trapped miners, that MSHA engaged in "inappropriate activity regarding its various statutory roles" after the disaster occurred.

"Thus, MSHA's actions are as much at the center of the ongoing public controversy regarding the accident as are the actions of the owner of Crandall Canyon," the complaint said.

The complaint seeks a court order stating that any investigation be public; it also wants the court to issue a restraining order and injunctions requiring Chao and her agents to not conduct investigative hearings into the disaster until media representatives can attend the proceedings and get any written transcripts of what transpired.

Attorneys for news organizations previously requested that reporters be allowed access to the proceedings of a group called the "MSHA panel," which has been reviewing the accident and is interviewing people who know about it. There also are plans for hearings in which witnesses will testify under oath in an arrangement much like a court, with a stenographer or court reporter keeping a record of what was said. Witnesses have been asked to keep quiet about whatever is said.

The news organizations maintain that the public has a constitutional right to know about the accident and what the panel is doing. There is widespread public interest and sympathy regarding the accident, and many questions about its cause and what type of rescue efforts were mounted, the complaint claims.

However, the Labor Department has denied these requests.

The Labor Department's acting solicitor, Jonathan Snare, previously stated it would be inappropriate to provide media access during a law enforcement investigation. Among other things, Snare argued this might pose the risk that witness testimony could end up being prejudiced, that witnesses might be subject to intimidation and that civil or criminal violators might realize that they are under suspicion.

The MSHA panel has indicated that a report and transcripts of "nonconfidential" testimony will be forthcoming after the hearings are concluded.

However, the court complaint suggests that, based on history, such proceedings take months to finish and what emerges is "limited" information.

Other participants in the complaint include the Salt Lake Tribune, Cable News Network, Associated Press and the Utah Media Coalition.