This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Saying previous court rulings do not apply, a judge on Tuesday denied news outlets' attempts to gain access to federal investigative hearings on the Crandall Canyon mine disaster.
U.S. District Judge Dee Benson said he could "find nothing in the Constitution or in the statutes of the United States to support" the forced opening of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's interviews with miners and others with knowledge of the two collapses that claimed nine lives.
Benson also said that element of the investigation presents different circumstances than previous court rulings cited by the news outlets.
Salt Lake Tribune editor Nancy Conway said the news outlets had not decided whether to appeal the ruling or pursue another way to gain access to the interviews. Conway said the options could include speaking to Utah's congressional delegation about the issue and lobbying for a change to federal law to require the investigation be held in public.
"We thought this was clearly in the public interest, and we thought we had some good basis for thinking that," Conway said.
The Tribune, the Deseret Morning News, The Associated Press, CNN and other news outlets filed suit Oct. 1 against U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao for access to MSHA's fact-finding meetings. The organizations cited rulings granting access to testimony in criminal trials and the investigation into the 1984 Wilberg mine disaster. Benson rebuffed those arguments.
"The court cannot make the leap that plaintiffs suggest by concluding that because the public has a First Amendment right of access to hear witnesses in a criminal trial, they also have a right of access to private government investigatory interviews," Benson wrote in his ruling.
A judge ruled in 1985 journalists should have access to hearings into the Wilberg fire, which killed 27 miners. Mine owners, operators and the United Mine Workers of America participated in the Wilberg hearings.
But unlike that case, Benson said the Crandall Canyon investigators have confined access to the formal inquiry to government officials.
"The facts in the present case are materially different from the facts that were presented to" the court in 1985, Benson said.
Utah's latest mine disaster began Aug. 6 at the Crandall Canyon mine near Huntington. A collapse there killed six miners whose bodies have not been recovered. Ten days later, another collapse killed three would-be rescuers and injured six.
The ruling in the Wilberg mine disaster was issued after the interviews were completed, leading an appeals court to vacate the order.
The latest MSHA panel began its probe on Sept. 17 and has been conducting interviews in various locations, including at the College of Eastern Utah. The panel, made up of MSHA employees and Utah Labor Commissioner Sherrie Hayashi, reviews documents and interviews people knowledgeable about the incident, at times under oath and in the presence of a court reporter. When the investigation is finished, the panel is to issue a final report to the public.
Michael O'Brien, attorney for the news organizations, said the current MSHA investigation is a fact-finding mission just as it was in 1985, just with fewer people in attendance.
Assistant Secretary of Labor David James applauded the ruling, saying it "allows MSHA's law enforcement investigation - including the questioning of witnesses - to continue without media interference that could deprive the public and the victims' families of a full accounting of what happened at Crandall Canyon."
The mine's owners supported the government's position and said they wanted to protect confidential business and financial information.
As for the U.S. Supreme Court cases on criminal case testimony the plaintiffs cited and Benson rebuffed, O'Brien said they are the same precedent cited by the 1985 judge in the Wilberg mine lawsuit.
Benson also said his court was not the place for First Amendment policy arguments.
"While it may be true that requiring all government investigations to be open would result in greater accountability and more accurate information," Benson wrote, "if such a requirement is to be imposed, it must come from a statute that is debated and passed by Congress and signed into law by the President."