Several months ago, I tried to get a simple question answered by NIOSH about part of its process for awarding mine safety research grants.Â The technical staff with whom I spoke probably knew the answer to my question, but they weren’t sure whether the information could be disclosed or not.Â Fair enough.Â They suggested that I file a FOIA request which I promptly did.Â Â More than 4 months later, I’m still waiting for an answer.Â
Granted, this is nowhere near the worst FOIA performance (see annual Rosemary Award), but my question to NIOSH was straightforward, and I guarantee they have at least one document which would be responsive to my request.
What was my question?Â IÂ asked for the names and affiliations of the individuals who served onÂ NIOSH’s technical review panel(s) evaluating certain mine safety grant proposals.
You may recallÂ after theÂ needless deaths of coal miners at theÂ Sago,Â Darby and other disasters,Â Congress was compelled toÂ provideÂ R&D funds forÂ projects related to underground refuge chambers, oxygen supplies, and communicationÂ and tracking equipment.Â InÂ fall 2006, NIOSHÂ received $10 million in emergency supplemental fundingÂ “forÂ research to develop mine safety technology.”Â
When theÂ Aug. 2007Â Crandall Canyon catastropheÂ occurred (andÂ like the situation at the Sago mine, there was no way to communicate with or locate the trapped miners)Â I wondered what happened toÂ thatÂ specialÂ $10 million appropriation.Â I learned that by lateÂ July 2007, NIOSH had awarded most of the money,Â but to my surprise, nearly $5 million went to just one firm: theÂ SYColeman Corporation.Â This company was selected by NIOSH for 2 of the 3Â awards for communication and tracking systems.Â The SyColeman website doesn’t provide much practical information about their expertise, but suggests they are quite successful at securing federal contracts especially from the Departments of Defense and Homeland Security.Â The Center for Media and Democracy’s SourceWatchÂ says the firm:
“was one of three companies the Pentagon contracted to improve the perception of the United States internationally through a new ‘psy-ops’ campaign. The contract for each company…[was] worth up to $100 million.”
Again, this doesn’t tell me much about their ability toÂ develop equipment for underground miners, butÂ maybe says something about theirÂ skill preparing successful proposals for federalÂ governmentÂ contracts.
Through myÂ work with Davitt McAteer on the Sago investigation, I came to meet dozens of manufacturers,Â professional designers, and back-yard tinkerers with all kinds of ideas to improve communication for and tracking of underground miners.Â A few months after the Sago tragedy, we made an open invitation to all of them toÂ display their technology or present their ideas at aÂ symposiumÂ inÂ Wheeling, WV.Â Â It wasÂ inspiringÂ to see all theÂ inventors andÂ entrepreneurs gathered at small booths, very eager to talk about the potential of their products and ideas toÂ assist trapped miners.Â There were one-man operations and more established companies—but no SYColeman in the bunch.Â
Whether large or small, nearly every oneÂ talked about watching the SagoÂ rescue efforts play out on nationalÂ TV, andÂ becoming anxious orÂ frustratedÂ knowing that they hadÂ technology or equipmentÂ that might beÂ applied in the mining environment.Â After the symposium, a number of these entrepreneurs and others coordinated withÂ MSHA and NIOSH to try out theirÂ equipment underground.Â [Descriptions of these in-mineÂ tests are hereÂ and here.]Â Then this past summer, whenÂ six men were trapped insideÂ the Utah Crandall Canyon mine, Davitt McAteer convened an impromptu on-line chat, through Wheeling Jesuit University, with anyone interested in discussing communication technology for underground miners.Â Firms includingÂ InSeT Systems, Matric Systems, emenu, Inc., Active Control, Workhorse Technologies, and Mine Site TechnologiesÂ participated, but again, no one from theÂ SYColeman company.
So, when I learned in mid-August 2007 that the SYColeman company had received nearly half of NIOSH’s special pot ofÂ $10 million, IÂ wanted to seeÂ their proposal and compare it to the other proposals received.Â Some of the “losing” proposals were submitted by some of the small companies mentioned above, who had demonstrated a sincere interest in helping advance communication systems for underground miners—even when federal funds had not yet been offered.Â I figured that a large firm like SYColeman probably hasÂ experts whoÂ write dozens of federalÂ funding proposals and when I compared their proposal side-by-side to the others, I would understand how NIOSH selected them.Â One of my FOIA requests, therefore, asked for aÂ copyÂ of the 10 proposals received by NIOSH for the underground miners’ tracking system.Â [TheÂ agency ultimately selected SYColeman ($2.13 million award)Â andÂ Extreme Endeavors & Consulting ($813,000)Â for their proposals. (more here)Â ]
I also realized, however, that NIOSH might notÂ release these proposals because they mayÂ containÂ proprietary information; I wanted to knowÂ at leastÂ who reviewed and scored the submitted proposals.Â I was told by the NIOSH technical staff that a “technical review panel” evaluated the proposals and members of this panel were not exclusivelyÂ government employees.Â Â Learning this, it seemedÂ reasonable to ask who were the non-government members of the panel, and did they have any bias or potential conflicts of interests which may have influenced their evaluation of the proposals?
It is this FOIA request Â —-for any record listing the names and affiliations of technical review panel— about which I criticize NIOSH for taking too long.Â Â I’d think there were probably just a few people at NIOSH who staffed the technical review panelÂ and surely they have a list of its members.Â Why does NIOSH need more than 4 months (so far) to respond to this simple request?
Perhaps a clue comes in the acknowledgement letter I received on CDC letterhead.Â I sentÂ my FOIA request directlyÂ to NIOSH, but it appears to have move up into theÂ HHS bureacracy to the Department’s Freedom of Information Act Office, within the Office of the Chief of Staff.Â Â It says:
“Your FOIA request has been received byÂ CDC/ATSDR and has been sent to the area(s) which may have pertinent records.”
If my simple question to NIOSH has to be processed through all of CDC DirectorÂ Julie Gerberding’s bureaucracy, I’ll probably be waiting another few months for an answer.Â It’s like sending an inquiry to the produce guyÂ at your local grocery store and it’s sent to some out-of-town corporate honcho for a response.Â What an absurd control of information.
With new FOIA amendments signed into law and scheduled to take affect by the end of this year, I hope that senior federal agency officials everywhere are compelled to review the law’s history andÂ Congress’ intent with respect to the public’s right to governmentÂ documents.Â Â Just in case any of them are reading The Pump Handle, the law’s purpose was:
“to establish a general philosophy of full agency disclosure unless information is exempt under delineated language.”*
And as President Lyndon Johnson stated when he signed the original FOIA in 1966:
“No one should be able to pull the curtains of secrecy around decisions which can be revealed without injury to the public interest.Â I…signed this measure with aÂ deep sense of pride that the U.S. in an open society in which the people’s right to know is cherished and guarded.”**Â Â
*O’Brien DM. The Public’s Right to Know: The Supreme Court and the First Amendment. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1981, 7.
**Sherick LG. How the Use the Freedome of Information Act. New York: Arco Publishing Company, 1978, 7.Â