Saturday, January 07, 2006

Are Sago Families The Latest Victims of Bush Administration's Public Affairs Policies?

One of the many "innovations" of this administration was the centralization of public affairs operations in the various cabinet departments. Each separate agency (such as OSHA and MSHA) have always had their own independent Public Affairs offices. They would coordinate with the Public Affairs office in the Secretary of Labor's office, but media inquiries -- even during crises -- would be handled by the individual agencies.

No longer. The trend now has been to centralize all response in the Secretary's office so as to enable the federal government to "speak with one voice."

It's also a much more effective way to control "the message." Combine that with this government's Cheneyesque obsession with secrecy and you have a situation where reporters commonly complain that they can never get anyone -- at least anyone who really knows anything -- to talk to them when trying to get information on what the government is doing. Many experienced public affairs officers have left the agencies in frustration. This situation is not only highly frustrating for journalists, it also isn't good for a democracy where citizens depend on media to get some idea of whether their elected officials are actually doing what they were elected to do.

We've seen another disturbing trend in this administration -- privatizing or "contracting out" as many government functions as possible -- either formally, through contracts, or informally by just letting their corporate friends write regulations, approve government press releases and run press operations formerly run by the federal agency.

We've seen, over the past week in Sago, West Virginia, how these change have played out when formerly governmental responsibilities are handed over to the private sector.

I wrote Thursday about Mineworkers Union representative Dennis O'Dell who was assisting the rescue and learned at the same time that the company did that the information given the families and media was wrong. According to the NY Times,
In the chaos, a debate emerged over what to tell the families, if anything. Mr. O'Dell said he urged officials to tell the families there was a problem. "We were sick in there knowing there was a celebration going on outside," he said. "There was a moral obligation for the company to step up."

But company officials said they did not want to upset the families with incomplete information, and they dispatched another rescue team into the mine to double check the condition of the miners, which took another two hours.

Sometime after 2:30 a.m., company officials notified families at the church that only one man had survived. The church exploded in anger.

It was not clear what position state and federal officials, who were theoretically in charge of the rescue operation, took in the debate. But [Governor Manchin's spokeswoman Lara] Ramsburg defended the decision to wait.

"The company was honestly trying to make sure they had the most accurate information to pass on to these families," she said.
Regarding MSHA's role (or lack thereof) in the communications fiasco, MineSafetyWatch author and former MSHA Public Affairs officer Kathy Snyder couldn't believe how the communications process was being handled at Sago:
"I was just shocked that my own agency was not stepping up to the plate to correct it," Kathy Snyder, who worked on similar disasters while directing the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Office of Information and Public Affairs, said Friday. "The last thing we wanted to do was have families hear news from the radio that had not been confirmed."

Snyder, a veteran of several presidential administrations, said the mine agency has an emergency response manual requiring an on-site manager of communication with families and the news media.

During a 1992 explosion in Virginia, "we would talk to families as long as they wanted to talk, then to the media, then back up for more information every two or three hours, through snow and sleet," she said. In 2002's successful Quecreek Mine rescue in Pennsylvania, she said, "we made sure that the families got all the news first and then the news media."


Mine agency rules require an agency official to step in if the chosen manager -- the company, in this case -- is not collecting and sharing information effectively.

"I saw a total lack of regard for procedures on how you progress during one of these mine emergencies," said another former mine agency employee. "Who was to be in place where, who was to be notified -- there was a whole handbook."

She said she brought her concerns to an assistant secretary of labor, but was rebuffed.
Many of these issues are similar problems we've seen elsewhere in this administration:
Snyder and another veteran agency official who worked directly on disaster response operations said the blunder at the Sago mine reflects a turn toward secrecy at the agency.

Before George W. Bush took office, the rescue official said, district officials were allowed to provide information to local media. Afterward, the rescue official said "we were pretty much told" to refer all inquiries to spokesmen at headquarters who are unfamiliar with agency operations, according to Snyder.

"They wanted us to contact [the media] and give them information when things are good, but when something happens and they call us, we have to say no," the emergency response official said, adding that he worried he and his colleagues were being used for public relations.

One of the former agency employees said she was "absolutely shocked" that there was no one from the mine agency dedicated to communications at Spago. A mine agency point person on the scene, she said, "absolutely could have prevented that misinformation." She said that when the rumors of a rescue spread, families would have been less likely to believe them until they received official confirmation.

A mine agency spokeswoman directed all inquiries to a Web site. The agency has promised an investigation into the miscommunication and the accident.
Ken Ward, a reporter for the Charleston Gazette was also shocked at the fact that the company had complete control over the media operations at the site:
And that's clearly not the expectation under the Mine Safety and Health Act. When something like this happens at a mine, a serious accident, where there are conditions that could cause further injuries to people, what happens is MSHA inspectors get there, and they issue what's called a “K-order,” which gives them control of the site. And nothing can happen at that site without MSHA approval. And one of the things that historically MSHA has always done is played a very active role, if not the role, in disseminating information.

Everyone recalls the Quecreek near disaster in July of 2002. And Mine Safety and Health Administration experts and state mine safety experts in Pennsylvania took a very active role. The governor of Pennsylvania, then Mark Schweiker, kind of ran some of those press conferences, but he had the technical people there with him to answer questions.

The only faces the public and the press are seeing here are company officials, and it's just shocking as to why that is, because the Labor Department, of which MSHA is a part, has at least two, and perhaps more, public affairs employees at the mine site with satellite phones and all sorts of ability to communicate. But they haven't had any briefings. They haven't answered any questions. I personally asked MSHA to obtain for my newspaper from its files on the mine permits, this operation, a copy of the underground map. And I was told by Susie Boner [phon.], one of their P.R. people, “Well, you'll have to get that from the company.” I mean, it's just – it’s a shocking thing here.
Ward confirms MSHA recent (during the current administration) determination to make life as hard as possible on any media that intends to investigate the agency's operations.
But it's really nothing new for this particular administration at MSHA that has had a long history in their time in office of trying to throw stumbling blocks and hurdles at reporters trying to learn about what MSHA’s doing. We had an accident in West Virginia in January of 2003. Some miners near Moundsville, up in our northern panhandle near Pittsburgh, were drilling a new shaft down into CONSOL -- to get into CONSOL Energy’s McElroy Mine. The shaft blew up. Three of these workers were killed. And we asked for previous inspection reports from that shaft drilling operation. We filed our FOIA request, our Freedom of Information Act request, the day after the accident in January of 2003. We didn't get that information until the following December. And, of course, when we got the information it revealed that MSHA had not properly inspected the mine.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, the Washington-based Public Affairs folks at MSHA (or maybe the Department of Labor, or maybe even a private sector public affairs consultant) have developed a webpage on Questions and Answers on the Sago Mine Accident that even John Stewart couldn't read with a straight face. For example,
Question: Why were there so many health and safety violations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) against Sago Mine last year?

Answer: Mining operations at the Sago Mine more than doubled between 2004 and 2005, prompting MSHA to dramatically increase – by 84% – its on-site inspection and enforcement presence. As a result, MSHA also took significantly more enforcement actions – 208 in total – against Sago Mine in 2005, requiring the operator to quickly correct health and safety violations in accordance with federal Mine Act standards. MSHA’s aggressive inspection and enforcement record at Sago Mine exemplifies the agency’s record-setting commitment to strong enforcement over the past five years.
I'm sure the families feel much better now.

As I've mentioned before, we've been in a situation throughout most of this administration where Republican control of both the White House and Congress means that there is no effective oversite over the agencies that are supposed to ensure the safety of American workers. The only effective oversight has come from the press (see here, here and here), but the federal government -- in this case, the Department of Labor and MSHA are not only franchising their responsibilities to private industry, but also making it as difficult as possible for outsider's to determine whether government agencies are fulfilling their missions.