“Be assured that we will pursue every avenue as we seek to understand what happened at Sago, because the truth is that when it comes to safety, we represent every miner in America and Canada whether he or she chooses to pay dues to this union or not,” said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts as a team of union safety experts arrived at the scene of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners.

Surviving coal miners who work at the nonunion Sago Mine have authorized the union to represent them in the investigations of the disaster. UMWA officials accompanied miners in closed-door interviews, which began Jan. 17, conducted by the company that owns the mine — International Coal Group (ICG) — and federal and state representatives.

“This is a courageous act by these miners and, frankly, something they likely would not have done had they not been assured anonymity by MSHA [the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] and the state,” said Roberts, a sixth-generation miner from Cabin Creek, W.Va. Both Roberts’ grandfathers died at work in the mines.

Both MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training are investigating the explosion, the first in the state in nearly 40 years. But investigators have not yet entered the mine, which is closed because ICG is pumping out water that it says seeped into one section. The delay caused West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd to postpone a Senate hearing until Jan. 23.

Roberts hailed West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin’s appointment of Davitt McAteer to head up the state’s investigation and backed McAteer’s call for public hearings on the disaster. The union leader said he believed McAteer “has the determination to pursue this investigation wherever it may lead,” and said a public hearing “can be a beneficial part of this investigation.”

“But what is going to be most important for the public and for coal miners to know as a result of this investigation,” Roberts said, “is that mine safety and health regulations will be strictly enforced at every mine in the United States. MSHA and the state mine safety agencies must view these regulations as requirements for companies to follow, not mere suggestions.”