WASHINGTON — The U.S. Labor Department assigned a liaison to the Utah Mine Safety Commission on Tuesday and agreed to inform the commission about the ongoing investigation into the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster.
Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. and commission chairman Scott Matheson have been requesting access to witness interviews and other components of the ongoing mine investigation to help the state better understand how to prevent similar accidents from happening in the future.
The department denied those requests last week, saying any early access to information could compromise the investigation.
But in a compromise Tuesday, Jonathan Snare, acting solicitor at the Labor Department, sent a letter to Matheson assigning Andrew Madden to work with the commission. The commission will receive regular briefings regarding the ongoing investigation.
"Should we uncover any urgent mine safety information, we will promptly convey such information to the UMSC," Snare wrote.
The commission also will have full access to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's "data and experience" on mine safety programs.
"I know we both seek a constructive solution that meets UMSC's needs while protecting the integrity of sensitive information in MSHA's investigation file from premature public release," Snare wrote.
After the initial letter sent by Snare last week, Matheson had requested "a fresh start in seeking a constructive solution."
Huntsman also sent a letter to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, saying there "is no intention to undermine this investigation and its effectiveness."
"However, equally important is the need for UMSC to assess the appropriate role Utah should have when it comes to mine safety and regulation," Huntsman wrote.
Huntsman will testify today before the House Education and Labor Committee. He is expected to talk about the commission and its intended role.
At a Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension hearing on the accident Tuesday, Dennis O'Dell, health and safety administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, said it was "preposterous" that MSHA has been refusing to give information to the commission. O'Dell, who is a member of the commission, said the commission wants information as the investigation continues so it can make appropriate recommendations.
"We are being shut out," O'Dell said. "What is it that they are trying to hide?"
MSHA has not only refused to share information with the state's commission, but the Deseret Morning News, Salt Lake Tribune and The Associated Press have also filed a lawsuit to gain access to the investigation proceedings.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who sits on the committee, told O'Dell he is working with the Labor Department to get the state commission access to what it needs.
"I know the people on the commission and they are very good people," Hatch said. "I think they would be capable of being very discreet."