Coal Tattoo

Obama and mine safety: Where is the transparency?

Obama Mine Safety

Late Friday afternoon, the Obama Labor Department announced its plans to have MSHA do its traditional “internal review” of agency actions prior to the April 5 explosion that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine here in West Virginia.

Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, though, was touting the fact that she asked the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to put together a team to review MSHA’s “internal review”:

To ensure accountability, I’ve asked for an outside team to review the policy, process and substance of MSHA’s internal review. This independent evaluation will help ensure that we’re doing everything we can to protect the health and safety of America’s miners.

I’m not sure that having NIOSH — an agency whose mining experts have close ties to MSHA — do this is really going to appease critics who have long called for some real independent review of how well MSHA has enforced the law to prevent these kinds of horrible disasters.  As I’ve reported before, MSHA’s record in using all of the tools available to it to prevent such needless deaths has not been especially good.

The other issue here — and let’s hope the national and political media pick up on it — is that the Obama administration has yet to announce what, if anything, it is doing to ensure the transparency of its investigation into the Upper Big Branch deaths.

Will interviews be open to the public and to the miners’ families? If not, will transcripts at least be promptly prepared and made public on the Internet? Will coal company lawyers be allowed to attend, while the public and the families are not?

Will MSHA hold its own formal public hearing, a move that gives it far more power to make Massey officials turn over documents and answer questions?

We don’t know.

Last week, President Obama made some of the strongest statements anyone I’ve talked to remembers hearing from a U.S. President regarding mine safety. But we’re still waiting to see if the President can force some transparency on this MSHA investigation, a process agency officials have historically kept carefully behind closed doors.

We know that Gov. Joe Manchin’s special investigator, Davitt McAteer, has said he will hold a public hearing similar to the one he organized after the Sago Mine Disaster four years ago … but again — what about opening up the interviews, making transcripts available and periodically briefing the media on what is being discovered along the way?

Stay tuned …