Tuesday, January 10, 2006

An -- Appropriately -- Huge Investigation

The last two days, I've been filing stories for my day job.

Very big news about the Sago investigation. From CBS News:

Federal and state mine safety officials said they would hold joint public hearings on the accident. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said federal mine safety officials would be called to testify before a Senate subcommittee that would hold hearings into the disaster beginning Jan. 19.

"It's time for the decisions affecting America's miners to be made with their best interests at heart," Byrd said in a statement. "That should be the legacy of the Sago miners."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also called for hearings into the specific issue of coal mine safety. He said Congress had not held a comprehensive oversight hearing of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration since 2001.

Also Monday, Manchin named J. Davitt McAteer, who oversaw the federal MSHA during the Clinton administration, to serve as his consultant, oversee the work of state and federal investigators, and issue a report on the disaster by July 1.

The attention to mine safety issues certainly is deserved. And the combination is unprecedented.

MSHA and its predecessors have held public hearings as part of investigations in some cases, yes. But in such a high-profile coal mine disaster, not since the Scotia Mine twin explosions in 1976 that killed 26. The Scotia investigation became mired in legal battles and the report was held back from release by a court order for 20 years. It is to be hoped that the same thing will not happen here.

Congressional hearings have been held into mine disasters, but almost always waited until a fact-finding investigation was complete.

And bringing in an outside consultant to do an accident investigation also is a fresh approach.

It healthy that no single organization will control this probe. Suspicion over government secrecy and the government's role in the Sago information fiasco could have badly hampered a classic investigation.

At the same time, I hope investigators will find a way to ensure protection for miner witnesses who may feel intimidated in a very public hearing forum. Sometimes miners worry -- rightly -- about being fired, laid off, blacklisted, shunned in the community, etc., for telling the truth to investigators. There are legal remedies for much of this, but they can be painfully slow.

I also hope that investigators will put all raw data -- mine plans, maps, test results, etc. -- on the public record, reversing the trend towards secrecy in these investigations over recent years.


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