Other dangerous mines? Federal data can’t tell you


Monday’s explosion that killed 25 miners at Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia came at a mine that had been flagged by inspectors for a series of violations – 3000 since 1995 and more than 500 in 2009 alone.

How does that compare to other mines? Because of the way the federal government releases the data, we can’t say.

Data on safety inspections is published in the Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) Web site, where users can find information on mine safety, inspections and violations. But getting to it is the hard part: the information is hidden behind a cumbersome search interface, one that’s geared more to users who know the name of the mine or the company that operates it (Performance Coal Co.) rather than the owner (in this case, Massey Energy).

Also, none of the data can be downloaded in any format; the only way to get access to the raw data is to cut and paste it in a spreadsheet. Doing any kind of comparative analysis is impossible, because results are available one at a time. Releasing aggregate underlying data, by state or even by year would be extremely useful.

Having the data available would allow journalists to map the mines with the most violations, and identify operators and owners with the worst safety records.

A very small subsection of the data, which gives a peek at the catalog of inspections carried out at various mines, was recently released as part of the White House’s Open Government Directive. According to Bill West, who manages mine safety data at MSHA, the dataset is not released in bulk because it consists of millions of records, but said it could be made available with a Freedom of Information Act request, to which he quickly added, “it could take a long time to receive the data.”

Our FOIA is on its way. We’ll be waiting.

Update — Apr.7, 2010:  As part of the Open Government Directive, Department of Labor is releasing the mine safety data here. Just as we pointed out yesterday, it can be searched by state and by the type of enforcement. According to an agency spokesperson, the download function is not available yet, but should be up and running in a few months.