By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/6/2010 4:12:38 PM ET 2010-05-06T20:12:38

Federal regulators have decided not to convene a public hearing in the early stages of their investigation into the deadly explosion at a West Virginia coal mine.

The decision means the agency will not have subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify during the initial part of its probe. It also means that family members of the 29 miners killed in the April 5 explosion won't be present for early interviews with mine workers and officials from Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration said Thursday it would conduct much of its initial investigation behind closed doors, then later hold two public hearings and other forums for public input.

The agency says it will use its subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify at the later hearings if necessary.

MSHA director Joe Main said the approach is driven by "a commitment to transparency and openness" and an effort to make sure the agency "does not impede any potential or ongoing criminal investigations into the blast."

The FBI has interviewed nearly two dozen current and former Massey employees in a criminal probe of the explosion.

Media organizations, labor unions and even Massey had called on the government to hold a full public hearing into the explosion, the nation's worst coal mining disaster in 40 years.

Instead, MSHA plans one hearing where mine workers, Massey officials and others with knowledge of the Upper Big Branch mine will testify. A second hearing to discuss the leading theories as to what caused the explosion will include MSHA investigators and outside experts.

Family members of miners who died in the blast would have a chance to comment on the investigation and potential reforms in mine safety during a separate public forum. MSHA also would convene a town-hall meeting to hear ideas on how to create a culture of safety at mining operations.

Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate and former regulator who practices law in Kentucky, called the move a disappointment.

"The bottom line is the process is going to be tainted from Day One with Massey lawyers being the only lawyers in the interviews," Oppegard said.

United Mine Workers spokesman Phil Smith also questioned the decision.

"The only people who are going to be in the room asking questions are MSHA and state officials," Smith said of the interviews that won't initially be public. "Who knows if they'll ask all the questions that need to get asked?"

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