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Coal Miners Pay the Price for Unlawful Government Secrecy

Seth DiStefano,
ACLU of West Virginia
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November 12, 2008

For anyone looking for the human price of unlawful government secrecy, take time to consider Bob Snashall’s recent editorial in The Charleston Gazette. Snashall spent 30 years as a freedom of information adviser within the U.S. Labor Department Solicitor’s office, Division of Mine Safety and Health.

The Bush administration’s circumvention of miner safety through unlawful government secrecy isn’t major news in West Virginia. We are all too familiar with the dangerous nature and history of coal mining, and the very creation of most federal mining statutes was in response to mining disasters here (Google “Monongah”, “Buffalo Creek”, “Sago”, and “Aracoma” mining disasters to learn more).

In the past, with the assistance of open government laws like the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), miners’ representatives and company officials could use information collected by Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to make effective policy decisions concerning the safety of miners all over the country. Not that it should surprise anyone, but adhering to the rule of law worked out pretty well. Over time, mines across the country became safer places to work.

Then came the 2000 elections, and a great deal changed. Starting, as Snashall cites, with the systematic elimination of miner accident files (crucial to determining safer mining practices and holding dangerous operators accountable), the Bush administration declared war on open-government practices.

At this point, it is important to conceptualize how government secrecy really hurts the cause of mine safety and, by extension, the miners who do the work. MSHA collects information regarding several things. This information, when taken as a whole, can show trends in types of accidents, and then can be used to formulate effective regulations to keep people safer in their jobs.

Because mining is a very dynamic industry (new techniques, new machinery, and having to dig deeper holes to get what you are looking for), the open flow of information between the government, miners’ representatives, and company officials is essential to keeping people safe and to effectively challenging techniques and policies that put miners in danger. If the government ignores law and refuses to release information requested through the FOIA, then official debate is finished before it even gets started. It is nearly impossible for a miner to challenge dangerous practices if the government agency responsible for the information regarding those practices refuses to let it out in the open. This is one case where unlawful government secrecy affects the everyday lives of ordinary people. In this case, the last eight years of disregard for the FOIA have left the government with blood on its hands.

Hopefully, President-elect Obama will address the systemic problem of government secrecy throughout the executive branch and demand that agencies under his supervision adhere to the rule of law, especially in respect to the Freedom of Information Act. It is a campaign promise he made and one that, for the sake and safety of miners, he can’t afford to neglect.

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