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.