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by Ken Ward, Jr., cross-posted from CoalTattoo

Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama issued a memo in which he asserted this his administration

“is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in government.”

The memo continued:

“We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”

Well, Obama’s Labor Department has now received formal requests from two of the widows of the Massey Energy Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, asking that the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) conduct its investigation of the disaster through the public hearing provisions of the federal mine safety law.  But so far, neither the White House nor MSHA has publicly offered any response to these requests. 

Were MSHA to grant the requests, all investigative interviews would be open to the families, the press and the public.  There would be no exclusive access for coal company lawyers (as Gov. Joe Manchin’s mine safety director, Ron Wooten, has said the state would allow) or for the United Mine Workers union.  Everybody would be able to watch and listen, and know whether the investigation was asking the right questions and digging for real answers about what caused this horrible disaster.

Are there potential downsides to doing this through a public hearing?  Sure.

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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. 

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by revere, cross-posted from Effect Measure

Tufts University is the latest institution to step in the Conflict of Interest mess and come out with shoes that smell. The University had organized a conference on conflict of interest in medicine and research, with Iowa’s Republican Senator Charles Grassley as the keynoter. Grassley has been an indefatigable crusader against instances of fraud and abuse against the federal government, and is a principal author and defender of the Federal False Claims Act, which allows whistleblowers to share in the recovery of fraudulently obtained monies (for an excellent account, see Henry Scammell’s Giant Killers). Grassley was unable to attend and was sending one of his chief aides, Paul Thacker, a former investigative journalist now working for Grassley. Here’s what happened next:

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The FDA, already under fire in the wake of widespread food- and drug-contamination problems, is now facing criticism for its failure to adequately guard against conflicts of interest in its assessment of the safety of bisphenol A.

FDA’s draft assessment of the chemical’s safety placed more weight on industry science – Sarah Vogel critiques the agency’s approach here – and upheld the current safety standard for human exposure to the BPA in food. Now a bisphenol A subcommittee is about to advise the agency on whether to accept or amend that draft assessment, and it turns out that its chair has a potential conflict of interest – and the FDA apparently wasn’t even aware of it.

Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel uncovered the problem:
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by David Egilman, MD, MPH

I just finished watching the Waxman hearings on FDA preemption and must comment on Christopher Shays’ (R-CT) comments.  Christopher Shays is the last remaining Republican congressman from New England.  Hopefully the November elections will result in the extinction of this last remaining
remnant of the age of the dinosaurs.

He repeatedly stated that he “had no dog in this hunt” concerning the impact of preemption and torts suits on drug safety. This is a peculiar position for a Congressperson who must decide whether or not the FDA’s actions are appropriate.  It’s one thing to have no opinion; it is in another to imply that there is no reason to have opinion.

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UPDATED BELOW
Annys Shin of the Washington Post has reported that Dr. Gail Charnley, a well-known corporate product defense expert, is the White House’s leading candidate for the chairmanship of the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

We’ve written extensively here about this beleaguered agency. Finally, after the nation watched helplessly at the recall of millions of lead-contaminated toys, President Bush has evidently decided to replace current Chairman Nancy Nord with someone more competent to safeguard the interests of manufacturers of dangerous products.

The Post article lists a few reasons the public might be concerned about a Charnley appointment, including one dispute over a missing conflict of interest disclosure. Curious about Dr. Charnley’s work, I spent a little time on the web reviewing selected aspects of her work, and have turned up what appears to be a new failure to disclose a pretty basic financial conflict. But I’ll return to that after reviewing what the Post has learned:

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Several months ago, I tried to get a simple question answered by NIOSH about part of its process for awarding mine safety research grants.  The technical staff with whom I spoke probably knew the answer to my question, but they weren’t sure whether the information could be disclosed or not.  Fair enough.  They suggested that I file a FOIA request which I promptly did.  More than 4 months later, I’m still waiting for an answer. 

Granted, this is nowhere near the worst FOIA performance (see annual Rosemary Award), but my question to NIOSH was straightforward, and I guarantee they have at least one document which would be responsive to my request.

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The journal Epidemiology has just published new evidence that drinking hexavalent chromium — also called chromium 6 — increases risk of stomach cancer. The study is important for public health purposes, since many drinking water sources are chromium contaminated (including the water in the community in the movie Erin Brockovich).

This new study is also the latest piece of a very ugly scandal that illustrates how polluters manufacture doubt to impede regulation. And this scandal is but one of several in which chromium polluters have manipulated epidemiologic studies to sow uncertainty – see our case study on chromium 6 at DefendingScience.org.

Pump Handle readers may recall our reporting on the controversy around a study of stomach cancer in Chinese villages where there were high levels of chromium in the drinking water. After an initial study reported elevated rates of stomach cancer, product defense consultants working for US chromium polluters reanalyzed the study, and the increased risk disappeared. The consultants re-analyzed the data and arranged for it to be published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (JOEM) without their names on it, hiding any connection to the product defense firm (Chemrisk) or the polluters who paid for the re-analysis. After the controversy was reported in the Wall Street Journal, the editor of JOEM retracted the study.

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The chairman of the University of Kentucky’s (UK) mining engineering department wrote in a recent op-ed of his strong oppposition to a new mine safety bill (HR 2768) which is making its way through Congress.  The legislation will address long-standing health and safety hazards faced by miners such as disease-causing coal dust and silica, belt-air ventilation, flammable conveyor belts, among other things.  In “New Mining Bill Premature,” printed in the Lexington Herald-Leader, Professor Rick Honaker says it is “incomprehensible” that Congress is attempting to place new safety requirements on coal operators.*  He claims new mandates will “serve no useful purpose” and will “only undermine the efforts of those trying to implement” the 2006 MINER Act.  That’s some tough criticism.

On closer look, I notice that neither the op-ed itself nor the professor’s byline mentions his university department’s financial connection to mining industry—an industry that also strongly opposes HR 2768.  These ties include a large financial endowment established by the mining industry, called the Mining Engineering Foundation.  The Foundation was created in 1983 with a $1 million endowment, which included a hefty donation of $500,000 from Mr. Catesby Clay, president of Kentucky River Coal.**  Interest from the fund now provides financial support to school’s mining engineering department.     

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Do you still believe the fairy tale that payments by a product’s manufacturer to a scientist (even the most well-meaning, independent-thinking scientist) do not inevitably influence that scientist’s interpretation of the technical data on product’s risks and benefits? If so, this will change your mind.

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