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.

For one thing, it would take longer.  For another, the scheduling and all other logistics — from the size of the room to dealing with meddling reporters and cumbersome TV cameras — would be more difficult.  But is this about making it easy for government investigators, or about getting to the truth in a way that everyone can see is open and honest?

As I said, the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training has already said it plans to allow coal company lawyers to sit in on interviews that it conducts.  That means the company lawyers won’t even have to go to the trouble of convincing miners to appoint them their “representatives” to get in the room.  At the same time, it seems very likely that the United Mine Workers of America union is going to find several miners who will appoint them their “miners’ representative,” which will give the union access to the interviews and all other parts of the investigation.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Miners at Upper Big Branch have an absolute right under the law to appoint their own representative — whether it’s the UMWA or their wives or their lawyer — to assist them and represent their interests in this investigation.  That part of the federal mine safety law is an incredibly powerful tool for miners to try to ensure their own safety in the workplace.  And there’s little doubt that the UMW has great expertise in mine safety, and its experts could see to it that tough questions are asked and every proper avenue for investigation is properly explored.

But there’s also a great political risk there for President Obama, given that he appointed the UMWA’s longtime safety director, Joe Main, to run MSHA.  Would Main actually turn down the widows’ request for a public hearing, but then grant the UMWA access to the interviews? How will that play in the coalfields?

I’m told very serious discussions are going on at the highest level of our government about these matters … so stay tuned to find out exactly how committed the administration is to transparency.

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.