Mining for the Truth About Sago

By Ellen Smith
Saturday, January 14, 2006

The country has just witnessed a terrible mine tragedy, but surviving miners and their families, the media, or any citizen, for that matter, will probably not be able to get much information from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) about what went wrong at the Sago mine in West Virginia.

There will be some information available, but for anyone looking to delve into what really happened on Jan. 2, the full details of that day or of what happened in the months preceding the mine disaster may never be brought to light. This is because, under the Bush administration, things are different when it comes to getting information from MSHA.

Under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), miners and their families, mine operators, reporters and concerned citizens were once able to obtain factual information while an accident investigation was in progress. In the pre-Bush MSHA, which includes the administrations of Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan, "matters of record" were made public during accident investigations. This information -- including witness interviews, laboratory results, MSHA-approved mine plans, inspectors' notes and inspection memos from before the accident -- is important. You can't avert a mine tragedy in the future if you don't know what went wrong in the past.

In previous years, the agency released factual records as they became available. It did so after the 1984 Wilberg mine fire in Utah, the 1989 Pyro mine explosion in Kentucky, the 1992 Southmountain mine explosion in Virginia, the 1993 Magma Copper mine accident in Arizona and the 1999 Kaiser Aluminum plant explosion in Louisiana. It released some information from the early phases of its investigation into a coal mine impoundment failure in Kentucky's Martin County in 2000.

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.

Even if other agencies do withhold factual information, why not make those agencies more FOIA-friendly, as MSHA was in the pre-Bush years? Why not make the pre-Bush MSHA the model for freedom of information? A return to the former practice would be healthy and would keep the government in check through greater public scrutiny. It would also help restore the trust of a public increasingly unhappy with government secrecy and especially upset about mismanagement of the bad news at the Sago mine.

This nation has a right to know what happened at Sago. The country and those involved in the mining industry have a right to know what happened in the months preceding this disaster and how MSHA inspectors and the mine operator made decisions. We have a right to know, or to have experts view, the factual records that might show engineering or ventilation problems that played a role in the explosion. We have a right to know on what basis MSHA made a decision -- any decision.

The writer is owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, where a similar version of this column appeared.

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