Burying the Evidence

BURYING THE EVIDENCE….More from Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News:


It will be a long time before we know what happened at Sago. It will also be a long time before we know anything about the role (or lack thereof) of the Mine Safety and Health Agency in the accident.

Why? Because MSHA no longer makes available to the public its own internal investigations on accidents and the role of MSHA and its inspectors leading up to the accident. The last time MSHA conducted an internal investigation, the Assistant Secretary announced that serious deficiencies had been found with MSHA inspections and that appropriate actions had been taken ? but the public was not allowed to view the report to read what those deficiencies were or what changes were being made to avoid similar problems in the future.

It’s not only internal reviews that MSHA has cut back on. The agency is even holding back accident investigation elements that used to be considered matters of public record, such as interview transcripts, rock dust samples, inspector notes and MSHA-approved mine plans. Claiming interference with law enforcement, the agency now holds these records back at least until it issues its final report and has claimed the right to withhold these records until all possibility of litigation has been exhausted ? possibly many years later.

MSHA does occasionally release such records early ? but only when it wants to, as it did with selected photos in the Quecreek investigation.

It’s worth noting that we’re talking here about factual records, not conclusions or opinions. The agency used to release such discrete factual items even during an investigation, including non-confidential interview transcripts after all interviews were complete and release of the information could not influence witnesses’ memories. Pledges of confidentiality, of course, were always honored, but rarely requested by interviewees.

Examples of the traditional practice: the Wilberg fire of 1984, the Southmountain explosion of 1992, and the 2000 Martin County inundation.

As a result of this change, concerned individuals outside MSHA now have no chance to examine the evidence and draw their own conclusions until MSHA has released its own conclusions ? and maybe not even then. MSHA followed this new withholding practice in 2001 in the case of the explosions at the JWR mine in Alabama ? and interestingly, key results of that investigation were later thrown out in court.

Return to the former policy woud be right, healthy and help keep the government up to the mark via greater public scrutiny.