by Ken Ward, Jr. cross-posted from Coal Tattoo
The last person the U.S. Senate confirmed to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration without a confirmation hearing was named Dave D. Lauriski. We know how that turned out … Lauriski proceeded to dismantle MSHA and a terrible series of disasters followed.
It doesn’t seem likely that Joe Main is going to tear down the improvements made to MSHA (some might say forced upon MSHA and the Bush administration by Congress) following Sago, Aracoma, Darby and Crandall Canyon. But it’s still a shame that members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee didn’t take the time to question Main and get him on the record about his plans for the agency. The full Senate could vote on— and likely approve — Main’s nomination as early as tomorrow.
I’ve already put in a request for an interview with Joe as soon as he’s confirmed. The answer I got — that he’ll want some time to get settled in first — makes me wonder … shouldn’t the very first thing that Joe Main changes about MSHA be its troublesome public information and Freedom of Information Act policies?
How about a memo that summarily gets rid of Bush-era information policies that prohibited inspectors and district managers from talking on-the-record to the media? How about reversing the rules that said inspection reports and copies of citations — once freely available to the press via fax — would only be made public upon submission of a formal FOIA request and months of waiting? And what about really dumping the Bush policy that transcripts of accident investigation interviews won’t be released to the press, the public and the mining community?
But that’s not all … obviously, communicating with the press, the public and the mining industry is just a fraction of what MSHA’s new leader needs to do.
So just for the heck of it, here’s my top 6 questions that I would have asked Joe Main if I were on the Senate HELP Committee and if the committee had bothered to hold a hearing:
- You’ve been a UMWA man your whole adult life. What would you say here and now to convince operators of non-union mines across this country that MSHA under your leadership isn’t going to be tougher on them than on union operations?
- When will MSHA reduce the respirable dust standard to 1 microgram per cubic meter to protect coal miners from black lung disease? Will you pledge here today to implement this change as an Emergency Temporary Standard, and without regard to whether MSHA also moves forward immediately with related rulemakings on personal dust monitors and airstream helmets?
- Will you urge Congress to amend federal law to require bimonthly inspections — six inspections per year — of all underground coal mines?
- How will you fix the special investigations division of MSHA to better protect miners who are discriminated against for making safety complaints or refusing to work in unsafe conditions?
- What role, if any, should the concept of “compliance assistance” play in MSHA’s enforcement efforts?
- What specific changes, if any, will you make in how the role of failures by MSHA are investigated following mine disasters and major accidents?
Ken Ward, Jr. is a a reporter for the Charleston Gazette (since 1991), has won numerous awards for his investigative writing on worker safety and health, and is the chairman of the Society of Environmental Journalist’s First Amendment Taskforce.