Sunday, January 15, 2006

MSHA To America: You Can't Handle The Truth!

According to Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, after past mining incidents, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) would make available to the public vital information including witness interviews, laboratory results, MSHA-approved mine plans, inspectors' notes and inspection memos from before the accident, even before the final investigation report was completed.

But no more. Consistent with their overall obsession with secrecy, this administration has apparently decided that we can't handle the truth:
The first time MSHA declined to release miner witness interviews was after the Sept. 24, 2001, explosion at a Jim Walters Resources mine in Alabama, which killed 13 miners -- a mine tragedy overshadowed by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. At that time, perhaps the media did not understand the change in MSHA's policy or what it would mean.

Then, two years ago, without public comment or input, MSHA secretly changed its longstanding policy of routinely releasing MSHA inspectors' notes and information from noise and dust surveys conducted at mine operations. While this secret policy change has drawn ire from both the mining industry and labor -- and, needless to say, the media -- MSHA refuses to change its policy, claiming that releasing this information would "interfere with law enforcement." MSHA has asserted that it can withhold this information "until all possibility of litigation has been exhausted." What this means is that concerned individuals outside MSHA will have no chance to examine raw evidence from the Sago disaster and reach their own conclusions.

But even if we wait until all legal proceedings have been concluded to see the full factual record, it still may not be made public, as the nation saw when the Labor Department blacked out 50 percent of an inspector general's report on issues surrounding an alleged coverup of the MSHA investigation of the Martin County coal impoundment failure. MSHA claims that it has changed its policy to conform with "what OSHA and other enforcement agencies" in the Labor Department do. Attorneys for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, however, say that the kind of information MSHA withholds is in fact made available by OSHA.
Smith asks how people are expected to trust the government, or the legitimacy of MSHA's investigation of regular people, or even the experts can't see the factual records that might reveal the problems that caused the explosion.