By Ellen Smith

The nation may have a new President with grand ideas about the Freedom of Information Act, but let’s be clear: at MSHA, nothing regarding FOIA has changed.

The same people are still in charge of FOIA, offering ridiculous redactions and refusing to divulge information which, previous to 2002, was openly shared with the public.  The latest redaction battle comes from Tony Oppegard, a miners’ rights advocate.   (See Oppegard’s response to MSHA’s FOIA denial.)   Oppegard has filed 135 cases on behalf of miners, but in his latest case, MSHA is denying Oppegard information that had been routinely handed-over.  MSHA’s denial is based on FOIA’s “law enforcement exemption.”  However, this information has been made public since the founding of the 1977 Mine Act itself. 

Mine Safety and Health News (MSHN) has an outstanding FOIA request dating back four years when Labor Dept. employees were given a one-day training seminar on FOIA. We requested any information handed out to the employees, which included some MSHA personnel.  To this date, nothing has been released. 

In another case, when MSHN asked for an unredacted copy of the whistle-blowing allegations surrounding the investigation of the Martin County Coal Impoundment failure, we were given the same redacted report, this time with different exemptions. We asked for the legal memo on a decision on what constitutes a haul road, but some of the information was also redacted. While we have appealed these cases, we’ve been told by the Labor Department in the Martin County case that there are so many appeals ahead of us that it will be a long wait for an answer.

When it comes to FOIA requests, MSHA has become like the “Office of Circumlocution” in the Charles Dickens novel Little Dorrit.  For those of you unfamiliar with Little Dorrit,  no one in the Dickens novel knows the history of the Office of Circumlocution, but

“it has a grip over all of British industry to stultifying effect.”

It is run by members of the Barnacle family who force all visitors to file endless paper requests that go nowhere.

“The Office of Circumlocution is a sea of obfuscation that cannot be navigated.”

No one denies the importance of MSHA’s mission – to protect the lives of this nation’s miners.  But what has somehow gotten lost in this mission is the freedom to have access to information that is gathered with tax-payers’ dollars.  The Mine Act is very clear that information regarding mining and mining conditions is to be made public to help keep miners safe.  However, more than safety is involved.  There is also the issue of good-will. Access to information leads to trust on all sides.  There cannot be wheeling and dealing when all information is public. If a decision is made, then the public has a right-to-know how the decision was made.

Freedom of information – that is the right of any American to access records of a  government agency paid for with our tax dollars –  is just as important as the regulations that govern mining operations.  Regarding FOIA, MSHA is spewing red tape and accomplishing nothing, except alienating the American people – miners and industry alike. 

Mr. Oppegard called MSHA’s latest information refusal, “Utter rubbish.”  Our feelings exactly.

Ellen Smith is the owner and managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News.  She has been coverning miners’ health and safety since 1987.