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Agency can't meet deadline to collect mine documents

WASHINGTON — The Labor Department said Friday that it cannot meet an Oct. 9 deadline for a House committee's request for documents related to the Crandall Canyon Mine accident.

Gathering the documents could cost the Labor Department at least $3.5 million, and that cost, plus the sheer volume of documents, means the department is unable to comply with the deadline, said Labor Department Acting Solicitor General Jonathan Snare. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif, had sent a subpoena for the mine documents late last month.

Miller had first requested the e-mails, letters and other documents soon after the mine collapse, to help with his committee's investigation into the accident. An Aug. 6 collapse at the mine trapped six miners, and their bodies were never recovered. Three rescuers died days later trying to reach them.

The chairman said he used the subpoena "as a last resort" because he had not received all the documents he had requested. He wants mine-related documents dating back to 2001.

In a letter sent Friday afternoon to Miller, Snare said the department was "surprised and disappointed" that the congressman had sent the subpoena. Snare said the subpoena was "disturbing" because the department already had sent 15,000 pages of documents and briefed the committee staff .

"The department has not refused to provide any documents," the letter said.

Snare outlined the efforts the department has made since Miller sent his first request for documents on Aug. 23 and another on Aug. 27, while the rescue effort at the mine was still under way.

In response to the congressman's initial request, the department gave the committee the mine's Emergency Response Plan, which had been in effect since 2004, as well as the roof-control plan and other documents.

But Miller's requests for e-mails on the mine would mean the department would have to hire an outside contractor to catalog and search e-mail archives for the records, and would cost the department about $3.5 million, Snare said.

Snare also had concerns about the committee's desire for documents "unrelated" to the accident, such as internal department communication about the committee's investigation and how the department handled the death of Mine Safety and Health Administration employee Gary L. Jensen, one of the three rescuers killed.

Miller's committee staff said Friday that they had received the letter and are reviewing it but could not comment further.