FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
January 31, 2006
CONTACT: Steve Forde or Kevin Smith
Telephone: (202) 225-4527
Labor Department Makes Key Policy Change Impacting Mine Investigations
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) today applauded a U.S. Department of Labor decision to reverse its policy of denying all requests under the Freedom of Information Act for notes taken by Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) inspectors during on-site mine inspections until a case has been officially closed.
Boehner, Capito, and Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) requested the reversal in a January 20, 2006 letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao. This policy change will enable a more timely release of pertinent information on the investigations into the recent Sago Mine and Alma #1 Mine tragedies in West Virginia.
“Our request to Secretary Chao was made for one simple reason: to get more information, more quickly into the hands of Congress, the families impacted by the tragedies, and all those with a stake in mining and these investigations,” noted Boehner. “My committee has pledged to pursue all avenues that will provide meaningful facts during this investigation, and securing this policy change at the Department of Labor is a key first step.”
Since the Sago Mine tragedy earlier this month, Boehner has closely monitored the early stages of the MSHA investigation and has committed to exploring a variety of options in his committee – including hearings – to examine the two accidents and review current mine safety rules and protections.
“Only with an open flow of information can we move forward in the wake of these tragedies to a new day in safer mining,” said Capito, “The revised FOIA policy will ensure that the public has first hand, accurate information about the Sago and Alma mines before the tragic accidents. This policy change is a good step in the right direction.”
In her January 30, 2006 letter to Boehner informing him of the policy change, Acting Assistant Secretary for Mine Health and Safety David G. Dye wrote, “I have recently concluded that, given MSHA’s unique statutory framework, inspector notes should generally be released once a citation has been issued (or an inspection is closed without citations), rather than withholding the notes until all litigation is concluded. The policy will be effective immediately.”
The full text of Boehner, Capito, and Norwood’s January 20, 2006 letter to Chao follows.
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(Text of January 20, 2006 letter to Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao)
January 20, 2006
The Honorable Elaine L. Chao
Secretary of Labor
U.S. Department of Labor
200 Constitution Avenue, NW
Washington DC 20210
Dear Secretary Chao:
We want to thank Administrator Ray McKinney, Coal Directorate, for providing House staff with a comprehensive briefing on the Sago Mine accident and the actions taken by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in response to this recent tragedy. The information Mr. McKinney provided was most helpful; and, the briefing overall was a good first step toward helping Congress understand the steps your agency is taking to fully investigate this accident. As the investigation of this matter continues in earnest, we trust the Department will continue to keep members of the House informed as to its status and progress, and would welcome follow up briefings as time and progress make appropriate.
During Mr. McKinney’s January 11 briefing, there was discussion of MSHA’s current policy to deny all requests under the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) for notes taken by MSHA inspectors during on-site mine inspections until a case has been officially closed. We share the concern expressed by some that because it frequently takes years for MSHA to officially close out cases due to litigation over citations and fines, this blanket policy has had the effect of denying important information about mine safety to the public.
While we appreciate the need to ensure the release of information does not compromise ongoing investigations and citing and fining of operators, the Sago Mine disaster has highlighted the importance of vigorously enforcing mine safety standards as well as the strong public interest in having access to factual information about the nation’s mines. While the agency has an interest in protecting confidential or private information as well as the deliberative process, the FOIA requires that federal records, such as notes from mine inspectors, be made available to the public in a timely fashion, so long as the public’s access does not interfere with the agency’s important work. In light of these concerns, we strongly urge you to revisit your policy and revise it to provide the public access to factual information, such as inspector notes. Moreover, we request that this change be implemented immediately, so that information relating to the Sago Mine accident will be available to all interested parties in a timely manner.
Thank you for your consideration in this matter.
Source: House Education & The Workforce Committee