This morning, I happened to be re-reading the United Mine Workers of America’s investigation report on the 2001 disaster at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine in Brookwood, Ala.
Back then, my friend Joe Main was director of health and safety for the UMWA. Today, of course, he’s assistant labor secretary in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
And my how times have changed …
Yesterday, Main and his boss, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis announced that they would continue the MSHA trend and hold one of the key parts of its Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster investigation behind closed doors.
As we reported, MSHA plans a series of various “public hearings”, “forums” and comment periods. But the meat of the investigation process (aside from the part conducted underground) will be held in secret. MSHA hasn’t even committed to releasing transcripts of its interviews, only “the contents” of those interviews — does that mean summaries or transcripts?
But in his report for the UMWA on the Brookwood disaster, Joe Main had this to say about the transparency of mine disaster investigations:
When Congress created the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act (Mine Act), it placed on MSHA the responsibility to conduct thorough investigations of mining accidents. Section 103 of the Mine Act describes the powers vested with the Agency to conduct public hearings in the investigation of any accident. It also provides tools for the Agency to obtain testimony of witnesses, documents, records and other information necessary to investigate mining accidents. The UMWA believes that Congress intended MSHA’s investigations to constitute a public accounting, not a secretive process.
The report also said that in future investigations:
MSHA should construct the hearing/interview process to be more open. It would be in the best interests of improved mine health and safety to have witnesses provide information in the public light rather than in the confidential manner. (If a witness is only willing to testify in confidence of his or her own will – that should of course be respected.)
To avoid the self-investigation dilemma and the appearance of cover-up, the Agency should provide for testimony from MSHA employees in a public setting. Miners and their representatives need to be involved in that process. Asking questions of all those involved in mine safety is essential to a comprehensive process.
Joe Main’s old organization, the UMWA, has announced it plans to sue MSHA over the agency’s plan to hold closed-door interviews, with union President Cecil Roberts saying yesterday:
The interview process is perhaps the most critical step in the entire investigation. That is where those with fresh, first-hand knowledge of what the conditions were in the mine will be asked to tell investigators what they know. But without subpoena power, MSHA has no ability to compel anyone to participate in an interview.
And, MSHA will be the one asking the questions. But what if they don’t ask all the questions that need to be asked? What if they don’t call everyone who needs to be called?
Some families of miners killed at Upper Big Branch area also terribly upset at MSHA’s plan. Rachel Hanna Moreland, attorney for the family of miners William “Bob” Griffith and Ronald Lee Maynor, said last night:
MSHA’s closed door interviews are unfair to the families. It would seem MSHA gives only lip-service to miners’ families concerns. The families are the biggest stakeholders here and have lost the most. Nonetheless, MSHA excludes them from the process. At the meeting last night the families asked to have a family representative present for witness conferences. MSHA responded with a flat no and offered no explanation for its refusal. The families should have access to solid information on a daily basis instead of suffering through months of rumors and trickled down information. MSHA’s press release does not indicate how or when it will disseminate information to the families during the fact gathering phase.