Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Two Gagged MSHA at Sago?

Pity the career civil servants tasked with unraveling the miscommunication at Sago that led to 11 miners’ families mistakenly rejoicing in the belief that their loved ones were found alive. (See entry for January 11 below.)

MineSafetyWatch previously reported that the Department of Labor sent a political media specialist to the mine in lieu of career professionals with extensive communication experience in other mine emergencies.

New info: it wasn’t just one political aide. There were two.

In addition to Dirk Fillpot from the Department of Labor’s Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., the Department also sent to the mine a political employee who works in the office of deputy secretary Steven Law. This individual, I was told, recently came to Labor from the Department of Defense, where her credentials included some time spent in Iraq. (It boggles the mind as to what value this background would have at Sago.)

It is not clear what these individuals actually did at the mine, if anything. But it is clear they paid no attention to MSHA’s tried and true public information procedures in mine emergencies.

They did not take charge to make sure that miners’ families and the media got accurate briefings.

They did not task themselves with rumor control. And when heartbreakingly incorrect information got out, they took no action to stop it.

MSHA safety managers onsite, including district manager Kevin Stricklin, coal mine safety administrator Ray McKinney and acting deputy assistant secretary Bob Friend, know how to handle public information in these emergencies. Even as the rejoicing went on, they must have known the joy was unfounded.

These circumstances suggest MSHA officials must have been under a gag order.

Where did that order come from? From the Labor Department politicals on site? Or from Washington?

And that's where the civil service investigators are in a tight spot.

They undoubtedly will find out the immediate sequence of events, but will they be empowered to look into the upper-level management decisions that set the stage?

Will the MSHA investigators be able to ask who, in Washington or in West Virginia, decided MSHA officials onsite would abdicate their normal communications responsibility?

Will the MSHA investigators find out who decided MSHA should forego its normal system of setting up planned briefings, which would have ensured information was carefully vetted before being relayed to families?

Will they get to interview Washington officials? Will they get to review e-mails and telephone records?

The questions answer themselves: these investigators will no doubt be directed to limit their horizons and not try to penetrate the decision chain -- where someone decided to circumvent procedures designed to prevent just this kind of fiasco.

That's why the investigation into the miscommunication at Sago needs to be made, not by MSHA, but by an independent investigator. Even the Inspector General of the Department of Labor may not have the necessary independence in a case like this.

That leaves Congress, the GAO, and/or the news media to unravel the full story.

The miners' families really deserve to know.

Footnote: Senate Appropriations Committee hearing (see below) is on again, rescheduled for Monday at 11.

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