by Ken Ward Jr., cross-posted from Coal Tattoo

After she visited Patriot Coal’s Federal No. 2 Mine in Monongalia County, W.Va., last year, Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis couldn’t say enough about the operation, its great labor-management relations and its model safety record.  Solis (or one of her aides) wrote a nearly 600-word newspaper commentary in which the secretary concluded she was “in awe” of the mine:

It was evident that management and labor can work together to ensure that workers are safe, earn a good wage, and can be proud that their work is contributing to meeting our nation’s diverse energy needs. It also reinforced my commitment to ensure that all American workers have the right to be safe and secure on the job and they return home to their family every night.

But now that Federal No. 2 is the subject of a broad criminal investigation targeting management officials who allegedly falsified safety records, Secretary Solis doesn’t have quite so much to say.

I’ve been asking for some comment from Solis, and this is so far the best I could get, relayed to me via e-mail by Amy Louviere, press spokeswoman for the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration:

I remain a firm believer in the benefits that come with labor-management cooperation, especially in the context of workplace safety.

As with any investigation, until we hear the results of the inquiry into alleged falsification of records, it would be neither wise nor fair to comment on Federal No. 2’s current safety record. But let me be clear, mine operators will be held accountable for any conditions that threaten the safety and well-being of their workforce.

And MSHA chief Joe Main — never one to be short on words — doesn’t have too much to say about the Federal No. 2 situation, either.

I’ve repeatedly asked for an interview with Joe, but so far MSHA hasn’t scheduled anything.

I did get a response back from Amy to one question I asked via e-mail of Joe Main. My question was, “Given that at least one foreman at Federal No. 2 has admitted to state investigators that he faked safety records concerning methane concentrations behind seals at this mine, does Assist. Sec. Main believe that this operation is a model of safety practices?” The answer:

As MSHA’s Assistant Secretary, my primary duty is to enforce the principles of the Mine Act. Mine operators that deliberately attempt to falsify records or in any way endanger miners will be held responsible.

For the record, Federal No. 2’s injury rate last year was 28 percent worse than the national average, according to MSHA records.

Also, another bit of news on this, MSHA spokeswoman Suzy Bohnert confirmed that the Federal No. 2 mine was also evacuated on Jan. 29 following a reading that showed explosive levels of methane in a sealed area. Previously, MSHA had only identified two evacuations, on Feb. 12 and Feb. 18.

Editor’s NoteRead the comments posted in response to this Ken Ward story.  One excellent piece of advice from one commenter:

“One thing is for certain in this whole mess – it is never a good thing for industry regulators to be in awe of the companies they are supposed to be regulating.”

Another from a commenter named “Coalminer’swife”:

“The operator is definitely to blame. Patriot Fed 2 promoted an environment that the bottom line is at the top of the list. Believe me, the atmosphere of worshipping the almighty dollar at Patriot has been a significant force since the split from Peabody. The foreman are working in a constant state panic of due to threats of layoff and/or dismissal.”