Coal Tattoo

Here’s an op-ed commentary by United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts that appeared in today’s Gazette, raising an issue first addressed on Coal Tattoo here:

In West Virginia, 29 coal miners are dead. More suffering families filled the nation’s television screens. They buried their dead with dignity and our hearts were broken by their grief.

In the Gulf of Mexico, 11 oil workers are dead. Their families suffered as well, burying their dead with dignity, and the sight of children mourning lost fathers broke our hearts once again.

Two disasters, viewed by most Americans from the comfort of their living rooms — but all too real to those in Montcoal, W.Va., and Venice, La.

But at that point, the similarities between these two national tragedies came to an end, both with respect to the aftermath of the disasters and the way the government is going about investigating what happened.

The environmental destruction still ongoing as a result of the Deepwater Horizon explosion is sure to destroy a significant amount of marine life in the Gulf and perhaps beyond, as well as cause long-lasting economic disruption in coastal communities. Nearly every day, above-the-fold headlines in newspapers across America carry the story of the spreading oil spill and the well owner’s failure to stop it.

The federal government, through a joint operation of the Departments of Interior and Homeland Security, has launched a comprehensive, open and public investigation into the Deepwater Horizon/Gulf oil spill disaster, including broadcasting witness interviews on the internet and making documents available for all to see.

The American public will have the opportunity to learn, firsthand, what caused the Deepwater Horizon explosion, who was responsible and what steps are being taken to both mitigate the damage done and keep it from happening again.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has launched an investigation into the Upper Big Branch disaster, featuring closed, private interviews, transcripts of which will not be released to the public for months, if then. Indeed, some of those involved in the investigation have said that they would destroy photographs taken underground at the Upper Big Branch mine if the investigators themselves did not deem them germane to the investigation.

And since MSHA decided to keep this a private investigation, it lost its ability to subpoena witnesses and compel them to come be interviewed. We are now finding out that many witnesses are indeed not coming to their scheduled interviews, meaning MSHA is losing valuable information it may never get.

Like every other Americans, I hope that the uncapped oil well in the Gulf is plugged soon. The effects on the Gulf Coast communities will be long-lasting, and effects on fisheries and wildlife will be disastrous for decades. Someone — or some company — needs to be held responsible for that.

The government’s approach in making the investigation on the Gulf coast completely open is the right one. The chips are falling where they may.

But by taking the exact opposite approach at the Upper Big Branch mine, the government is stacking the chips as it wants them.

If oil workers and oil company managers can testify, in public, about what happened leading up to the explosion on the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig, then I can’t for the life of me understand why Upper Big Branch miners and Massey Energy management can’t testify in public about what happened at that mine.

The main objection seems to be that the Justice Department and the FBI are carrying on a criminal investigation about the Upper Big Branch explosion and there is concern that an open, public investigation would somehow hinder that investigation. But there is a criminal investigation going on with respect to the Deepwater Horizon explosion too. Somehow, making the oil spill investigation open isn’t hindering the criminal side of that investigation.

So, people are left wondering: Either MSHA is so stuck in its ways that it can’t even contemplate how to conduct an open, public investigation; or there is something that the agency doesn’t want exposed, for whatever reason.

I want to believe that neither of those things are true. But I can’t think of another conclusion that fits the facts.