A sign at the Mettiki mine site where Chad Cook died clearly marked the road as a private coal haulroad. Photo by Ken Ward Jr.
Mine Safety and Health News Editor Ellen Smith’s latest (and well justified — more on that later) criticism of MSHA’s public information policies included a brief mention of Ellen’s efforts to get a copy of the agency’s legal determination of what constitutes a haulroad under federal mine safety law.
And in her latest newsletter (subscription required), Ellen explained MSHA’s legal thinking, and provided a copy of the agency’s legal memo, which she pointed out was greatly redacted by MSHA before it was released.
Photo by Ken Ward Jr.
But what about MSHA’s problem here — the agency’s failure to investigate in the first place, and its absurd initial decision that this wasn’t mining related? Ellen Smith has written about problems with MSHA’s “chargeability” determinations before, and I’ve followed up on some of her stories. After Sago, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette jumped in and did some solid reporting on the issue.
In November 2007, the Labor Department’s Inspector General issued a report criticizing the method MSHA uses to determine if deaths are mining related. IG investigators did not find instances where MSHA decisions were “clearly contradicted by available evidence,” but identified instances of non-compliace with agency policies and “control and procedural weaknesses that increased the risk that such errors could occur.”
MSHA responded by issuing a new policy for determining if deaths were mining related. I’m not sure if the new policy is really that great, and I’d cite the example of one mine worker I wrote about — Ricky Collins, a Massey employee who was killed in March 2008 as an example — but one thing is for sure. MSHA is at least doing a better job of making public information about what deaths it considers mining related — and which ones it doesn’t.
It used to be that I had to file a Freedom of Information Act request every once in a while for a list of non-chargeable deaths. Now, MSHA puts information about those deaths on its Web site for everybody to see.
But even this could be easily improved, if MSHA would do a few simple things.
For example, the agency doesn’t post anything until a chargeability determination is made. Why not instead post a copy of the preliminary report of the fatal accident — or at least bare bones details about it — immediately after the death, with a note making it clear that no chargeability determination has yet been made? (Of course, I’ve been asking for years that MSHA post the short preliminary reports on mining deaths on its Fatalgrams page, and nobody at the agency seems interested in doing that). And,Â why in the world does MSHA withhold the names of the miners from these chargeability determinations? I don’t think there’s any good reason for doing that.
Whenever President Obama gets around to appointing a new assistant labor secretary for MSHA, that person is going to have a pretty full plate. But clearly doing more to fix the chargeability policy is part of that. It would be a fitting legacy for Chad Cook.