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After Sago, Congress seeks more open MSHA

In the wake of the Sago Mine accident, some members of Congress are demanding more openness from the federal agency that regulates mine safety.Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., already has asked that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration turn over key documents about the mine, its safety practices and MSHA’s enforcement actions.And last week, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wrote to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to seek a reversal in MSHA policies that kept certain inspection records hidden from the public.Waxman urged Chao to order MSHA to stop blocking public access to detailed notes written by the agency’s mine inspectors.For years, MSHA regularly made such notes available. The Bush administration changed that in 2004.“This unwarranted secrecy may protect the mining industry from embarrassing disclosures, but it undermines accountability and mine safety,” Waxman said in his Jan. 11 letter to Chao.In his letter, Waxman noted that the inspectors’ notes, “were particularly important.“Not only were they used by mine safety organizations, mine workers and the public to identify dangerous mines and practices, they were also useful to mine operators implementing needed improvements in mine safety,” Waxman wrote.Over the past two years, MSHA has declined to release to the Sunday Gazette-Mail inspectors’ notes from several important cases. West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the industry newsletter Mine Safety and Health News also have been blocked from obtaining such records.
MSHA has maintained that the documents are exempt from disclosure as law enforcement records or internal memoranda.During the week of the Sago tragedy, MSHA officials returned few phone calls and answered few questions from the media about the explosion and rescue operation.Last week, the agency began to hold regular media briefings — on the phone for coalfield reporters and in Washington, D.C., for the national media and trade press.MSHA also has begun to release certain information about the accident on its Web site.Among other things, MSHA took the unusual step of posting on its Web site the actual citations — but not inspectors’ reports — for some of the Sago Mine’s most serious violations.Under federal law, agencies are required to post documents on their Web sites if they receive a Freedom of Information Act request for them and are likely to receive additional requests for the same records.
MSHA has not announced any response to Waxman’s request or to Miller’s request for records about the Sago Mine.“Government secrecy exacts a heavy price,” Waxman wrote. “It reduces accountability and invites abuse and corruption.“The secrecy policies that MSHA has adopted under the Bush administration are dangerous and unwarranted, and they should be immediately reversed.”To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.
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