Mine Safety and the Story of Openness


The challenge in working for government transparency is that you are always working against its opposite: opacity. What we don’t see is often what’s most harmful to us. When the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded in West Virginia last April and killed 29 miners, we were surprised because most of us had never seen it coming. The sad thing is, many of the experts didn’t see it coming either.

Open, searchable data is critical for us as citizens and for the experts we respect to get the information we need to hold our government accountable. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) may be one of the better agencies at releasing data, but due to a computer glitch and awkward structuring of databases, the egregious safety violations of the Upper Big Branch Mine were overlooked.

We need to pay attention to the ways in which government information impacts our lives, because it does impact all of us. Transparency touches everything from the Chilean miners sent into a mine with a history of unstable conditions to the infamously overpaid city council of Bell, California to the countless narratives of closed meetings, embezzled funds and lost records that appear on the federal, state and local level.

The folks here at Sunlight know that government accountability and access to information and data affect all of us in many different ways, and we want to connect those narratives. We’ll start with the story of the Upper Big Branch Mine, but we know you have a story of your own. Share it with us. Send us an email or submit your story in the comments.

graphics and co-production by Noah Kunin

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  • Wouldn’t be be illegal for a U.S. corporation to mount a rescue for trapped miners? Corporations have a fiduciary duty to maximize profits to shareholders, and it obviously costs more to rescue miners than to just leave them to die, so the board of directors of a mining corporation could be sued for trying to rescue trapped miners. The same laws that drive mining companies to cut corners with safety, would encourage them not to attempt to rescue miners.

    And of course our government operates on behalf of business, as corporate money is what keeps the major political parties in power. With all the deregulation and lack of enforcement, it is much cheaper for a corporation to pay a small fine and sacrifice miners than to operate ethically.

    How long do you have to keep shining sunlight into a cesspool before you realize that it’s a cesspool?