reported by Mine Safety and Health News: Martin County: New Information  Released, But Information on Mine Seals Still  Redacted

A Labor Dept.’s Inspector General report on the whistle-blower complaints surrounding the 2000 Martin County Coal Co.  impoundment failure in Kentucky, verifies a change in MSHA’s  investigation after the administration of George W. Bush came into power.  In addition, the IG report shows that it  never questioned the lead investigator into the impoundment failure – Tony  Oppegard – who headed the investigation team until the day G.W. Bush was  inaugurated. 
 
The IG investigation was launched after Mine  Academy head Jack Spadaro claimed that Bush Administration officials were  interfering in the investigation into one of the largest environmental disasters  in the eastern U.S.    Spadaro was “second in command” on the MSHA  investigation team looking into the causes of the failure, and was head of the  team when Oppegard was absent.

The IG report shows that after the top  echelon of MSHA changed with administrations, the tone and scope of the  investigation also changed. 

One of Spadaro’s complaints was that MSHA District  Manager Tim Thompson ended the evidence-gathering phase of the  investigation early.  Thompson told the IG he believed he was wrapping  up when he took over from Oppegard.  However, Oppegard told Mine  Safety and Health News that when Thompson took over

“We had  only interviewed about 1/2 of the witnesses that Ronnie Brock and I had targeted  for interview.”

The MSHA accident investigators described to  the IG intense and often heated discussions regarding various facets of the  investigation.  The conflicts included the inclusion of information related to the Martin County Coal Company (MCCC) impoundment approval process, proposed violations against MCCC, the  seal construction in the abandoned mine below the impoundment, access to  investigative records, the inclusion of MSHA District Manager Tim Thompson’s  “postscripts,” he wanted added to the report,  the accuracy of impoundment  maps, the Triad Engineering report, MSHA management influence, and the relevance  and availability of several memorandums.
 
 The document also shows that an MSHA engineer  Larry Wilson believed there were major problems with the Martin County impoundment after a small failure in 1994, and made nine recommendations, some  of which were over-ridden or not considered by a new MSHA District Manager Carl  Boone, who was not familiar with the 1994 failure.  Wilson stated he felt the  impoundment should not have been used anymore and made the nine recommendations  “to make it difficult or unfeasible to continue its use.”
 
Mine Safety and Health  News has been trying to get a completely unredacted version of the  IG report since 2003.  A new request for the report was made on February 3,  2009.  MSHN raised concerns with the Labor Dept. after the newsletter was told on Oct. 9, 2009 that Tom Mascolino [who retired from DOL/SOL/ MSH in 2006] who is now a FOIA contractor for MSHA, was reviewing the IG report before it was  released to Mine Safety and Health News.  A formal  letter of protest was sent to the Labor Dept., since Mascolino was part of  the citation process against MCCC, and was involved in some of the controversies  brought up by Spadaro. 
 
There are still major redactions in the report,  including the entire section on the mine seals, and Mine Safety and  Health News is considering an appeal to U.S. District Court.  A complete story will be in the next issue of  Mine Safety and Health News.

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