July 2, 2014 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

They wanted to keep these words secret:

“two” …..  “two miner operators” …….”worn by the miners. Both”   …….“right miner”   …….“left miner”

They are the phrases the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) initially redacted from a document requested by Mine Safety and Health News (MSHNews). (You can see the before and after versions here.)  It’s not only redaction overkill, but it’s made worse coming from the Administration that “pledged to make this the most transparent Administration in history.”

The document with the redacted terms  is a citation issued in January 2014 to Armstrong Coal company for violations at its Parkway mine. The underground coal mine was the subject of a story written last month by HuffPost’s Dave Jamieson.  Jamieson reported on the experience of two whistleblowers who alerted federal inspectors that their company was cheating when it collected air samples to measure respirable coal dust. Rather than assigning miners to wear the dust pumps, the company put the devices in a part of the mine far away from coal dust.

The cheating by coal operators on respirable dust sampling is nothing new. Back in the early 1990’s Republican Labor Secretary Lynn Martin said the coal mining industry was “addicted to cheating.”  Ouch.  But it’s not so easy to catch mine operators in the act. This time MSHA inspectors did and the Parkway mine got a citation for it.

Jamieson’s story piqued the interest of the Ellen Smith, the editor of MSHNews. She had a simple request: a copy of the citation related to the cheating. Smith could share with her readers the details of the mine operator’s deception. Getting those details from MSHA was not as easy as it should have been.

In the current edition of MSHNews, Smith reports on their effort to obtain an unredacted version of the citation.

MSHNews‘ correspondent Kathy Snyder, along with Emily Grannis, an attorney with the Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, went to MSHA headquarters to demand an unredacted copy of the citation.”

Smith explains:

“Under the 1977 Mine Act’s Section 104(h) ‘all records, information, reports, findings, citations, notices, orders, or decisions required or issued pursuant to or under this Act may be published from time to time, may be released to any interested person, and shall be made available for public inspection.”

Section 109 (b)(2) of the Mine Act also addresses disclosure of records:

Any “notice, order, citation, or decision shall be available for public inspection.”

In this case, MSHA ultimately agreed to provide an unredacted version of the citation. But it had to be pushed. In other words, they admitted their error.

This should mean that in future requests for citations, phrases like “two miner operators,” “right miner,” and “left miner” are not hidden under the ink of a black marker.  It should mean that MSHA will follow the plain language of the Mine Act’s Sections 104(h) and 109 (b)(2).

But will it?

My hope is that the before and after versions of the Parkway mine citations cross the desks of Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith, or at least the desk of MSHA chief Joe Main. They’ll surely see the redactions on the document as ridiculous. As the officials ultimately responsible for implementing President Obama’s policies, including his pledge to be “the most transparent Administration in history,” I hope they will take steps to fix the cause of their Department’s redaction overkill.

I doubt the Parkway mine citation example is an isolated incident. It’s just the one that appeared in print courtesy of MSHNews.


3 thoughts on “Ridiculous redactions by the Labor Dept’s mine safety agency

  1. > most transparent

    Like “most unique” it’s not meaningful.
    Besides, remember The Invisible Man?
    He was transparent. You couldn’t see him at all.

  2. I read the citation comparison to see why the redactions may have made, and it surprised me that the grammar of the citation was so poor. Seemed like cut and paste of legalese from another source, without regard to fixing incomplete sentences or tense.
    Is this normal? What does it say about the competence of the MSHA inspectors?

  3. Thad,
    Some of it is legalese, but the latter part is the description written by the inspector about the circumstances of the violation. I agree the grammar is not perfect, but I don’t think it reflects on the inspector’s competence to do his job. Although grammar is important, I’d much rather have a mine inspector that knows how to identify hazards, understands the law and applies it, and recognizes when a mine operator is trying to pull the wool over his eyes.

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