Confined Space
News and Commentary on Workplace Health & Safety, Labor and Politics

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Bush's Surface Mining Nominee Up To His Neck In Improper Behavior While At MSHA

I published a piece last week about the Bush administration's appointment of John Correll to head the Office of Surface Mining at the Department of Interior and how the press release boasted that he “has been responsible for management of all aspects” of administration's Mine Safety and Health Administration (as if that was supposed to be a positive recommendation.) I also mentioned that like many Bush administration officials who have jobs in watchdog agencies, he came out of the industry he was supposed to be regulating, in this case from management positions at Amax Mining and Peabody Coal Co (pdf).

But it turns out that incompetence and cronyism is the least of Correll's problems. A bit more research reveals also was deeply involved in improper contracting while at MSHA, and was instrumental in the firing of an MSHA whistleblower.

What does OSM do?
The OSM's primary objectives are to ensure that coal mining activities are conducted in a manner that protects citizens and the environment during mining, to ensure that the land is restored to beneficial use following mining, and to mitigate the effects of past mining by aggressively pursuing reclamation of abandoned coal mines.
And what recent experience does Correll have in protecting citizens and the environment during mining?

You may recall the case of Jack Spadaro, former superintendent of MSHA's National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va -- and whistleblower -- who was fired in retaliation for uncovering of the fact that Martin County Coal (owned by Massey Energy) knew about problems that eventually resulted in a massive toxic coal slurry spill -- "the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States," according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Far more extensive in damage than the widely known 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill off the coast of Alaska, the Martin County Coal slurry spill dumped an estimated 306 million gallons of toxic sludge down 100 miles of waterways.
Spadaro was a member of the team investigating the spill and blew the whistle on the whitewashed investigation, accusing Bush administration political appointees of cutting the investigation short, playing down the coal company's responsibility and not holding federal regulators accountable for weak oversight. He also blew the whistle on former Assistant Secretary of Labor for MSHA, Dave Lauriski and MSHA's two deputies -- Correll and John Caylor -- for their connections to not-for-bid contracts that went to longtime friends and associates Gerry Silver and Ben Sheppard. Sheppard obtained a series of contracts worth about $190,000. Silver received more than $100,000 from MSHA. One of these contracts, totaling $200,000 for educational training, had been recorded at MSHA as just 180 small contracts for $1,025 each. (More details about that in this anonymous comment to the previous piece.) Lauriski resigned shortly after an Inspector General report confirmed the wrongdoing.

But you can't fire someone for whistleblowing, so Spadaro was accused of a number of minor violations of government rules, including providing free room and board at the mine safety academy to two disabled instructors in a mine rescue competition. He was also accused of making unauthorized cash advances on a government credit card when he needed money to entertain dignitaries and students at the academy, and failure to follow supervisory instructions and appropriate accident procedures. Spadaro had paid his credit card bills on time, but chalked up a whopping $22.60 in processing fees.

And who was given the responsibility to make the final decision on Spadaro's fate at MSHA? None other than John Correll. Spadaro was fired. Correll upheld 13 of the 15 allegations against Spadaro, saying he had "flouted government regulations and agency policies in a variety of issues." He was then reinstated, put on administrative leave, demoted and transferred. Finally,
Just two months shy of his 28th anniversary as a federal government employee--he resigned. A serious case of high blood pressure, lawyer's fees of over $20,000, and frustration with how long it was taking for his appeal to be decided by the Merit Systems Protection Board contributed to Spadaro's decision to throw in the towel. "I'm just very tired of fighting," he said. "I've been fighting this administration since early 2001. I want a little peace for a while."
According to Spadaro,
"I've been in federal government for 27 years, and this is the most lawless administration I have ever seen," he said. "They care nothing for the rights of their employees. They certainly care nothing about enforcing the laws they are charged with enforcing, and they run roughshod over anyone who might try to get them to obey the laws."
So, the man soon to be in charge of the safety of America's surface mining activities was responsible for the firing of an MSHA official who revealed the coverup of "the worst environmental catastrophe in the history of the Eastern United States."

The only word that comes to mind is: "typical."

Incidentally, Jack Spadaro recently won the 2006 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award for his personal achievement in defending the First Amendment.

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