When transparency can save lives

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Dan Froomkin has a good write-up of the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s (MSHA) failure to release certain notes related to violations that Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine was cited for in the past year. The Upper Big Branch Mine was the site of the worst coal mining disaster in the United States in the past forty years.

The Charleston Gazette’s award-winning mining beat reporter Ken Ward Jr. first reported about the inspector’s notes late Tuesday, describing them as being among a “dribble” of documents that the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA, pronounced em-sha) is finally releasing to the public “as federal and state officials begin a long and complex effort to figure out what caused the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.”

The violation the inspector described in his notes was fixed later that same day; the company was cited for “unwarrantable failure” to follow safety rules and fined a hefty $70,000.

But the inspector’s notes — a particularly valuable source of information that the government used to routinely make available on request — weren’t released to members of the public or to journalists until more than a week after the mine exploded.

If those notes had been available, journalists like Ken Ward or Ellen Smith (the managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News) or someone else just might have brought some much-needed attention to Massey’s evidently casual attitude toward such a life-threatening issue. And maybe a disaster would have been averted.

“This is life and death stuff,” said Steven Aftergood, a secrecy specialist at the Federation of American Scientists. “And by withholding this information from the public domain, the government’s capacity to spur corrective action was blocked.”

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