Thursday, January 05, 2006

Will Mine Investigation Gain Public's Trust?

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has announced its investigation into the Sago Mine tragedy with its usual press release.

The investigation is likely to last several months.

In the interim, it is likely MSHA will refuse to talk about the accident or release any further documents or data about the mine, on the grounds that the investigation is pending.

It didn't always happen that way. The agency used to release discrete facutal information as the investigation progressed. Matters of public record included non-confidential interview transcripts, laboratory results, and MSHA-approved mine plans and inspector notes from before the accident.

MSHA now routinely holds such records back at least until it issues its final report, and has even claimed the right to withhold such records until all possibility of litigation has been exhausted -- possibly many years later.

The excuse is interference with law enforcement. But in my experience, interference is rarely a realistic concern. The real issues usually are spin control, shortage of resources to cope with requests, and sheer dislike of the Freedom of Information Act.

Note: MSHA still will release investigation records early, but only when it chooses -- such as selected photos during the 2002 Quecreek investigation.

I am talking here about factual records, not conclusions or opinions. The agency even used to release non-confidential interview transcripts, once all interviews were complete. The only delay was to make sure that the information could not influence witnesses' memories. (Pledges of confidentiality, of course, always were honored, but rarely requested by interviewees.)

For instance, MSHA followed this system after the 1984 Wilberg mine fire in Utah, the 1989 Pyro mine explosion in Kentucky, the 1992 Southmountain mine explosion in Virginia, and in the early phases of its investigation into the 2000 Martin County coal mine impoundment failure in Kentucky.

Now, however, concerned individuals outside MSHA likely will have no chance to examine raw evidence and reach their own conclusions until MSHA has put out its own conclusions -- and maybe not even then.

A return to the former practice would be right, healthy and help keep the government up to the mark through greater public scrutiny.

It would also help to restore the trust of a public increasingly unhappy with government secrecy and especially upset about mismanagement of the bad news at the Sago Mine.

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