Undermining Independence

by Tom Bethell
(Posted with permission from The Mountain Eagle, Whitesburg, KY)

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, somebody in the Bush administration comes up with another way to compromise somebody else’s rights. The latest example is Richard Stickler, director of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

MSHA has been much in the news since 2006. Coal miners have suffered a string of disasters – Sago, Aracoma Alma, Kentucky Darby, Crandall Canyon – that might have been avoided or mitigated if MSHA since 2001 had stuck to its congressionally mandated job, which is law enforcement. But the Bush years have seen the agency shifting to “compliance assistance” (try requesting that the next time a trooper stops you) while hobbled by budget cuts, resulting in having too few inspectors to handle even their more compliant role.

At Crandall Canyon, as you’ll remember if you watched the news, Stickler seemed subordinate to mine owner Robert Murray, whose flawed mining plan led to the deaths of nine miners – six who were trapped when the inadequately supported mine walls erupted behind them and three (including a federal inspector) who were killed ten days later while trying to rescue the trapped miners.

MSHA’s handling of the Crandall Canyon mine from start to finish – from approving a bad mining plan to botching a rescue – was so obviously inept that Labor Secretary Elaine Chao was forced to appoint a team of independent investigators to look into how the agency conducted itself. As we noted in an August 6 editorial, the two investigators – Ernie Teaster and Joe Pavlovich, both MSHA veterans now retired – did a remarkable job, delivering a report that left no doubt of the desperate need for someone to lead MSHA back to its original mission.

Stickler, we now learn, is not that kind of leader.

As Salt Lake Tribune reporter Mike Gorrell revealed last Sunday, it wasn’t the report’s recommendations that got Stickler’s attention. No, what he wanted to know more about was who the sources were for the many unflattering comments in the report about how he performed at Crandall Canyon – candid comments by MSHA personnel, in interviews with Teaster and Pavlovich that were supposed to be kept confidential.

It’s not surprising that Stickler didn’t like the comments, which depict him as a real piece of work – a manager with no listening skills who was inclined to fire anyone questioning his thinking during a crisis. Whether that’s a fair portrayal, it’s how some front-line people felt, and for the sake of MSHA’s future it’s important that they expressed those views. But it’s equally obvious that they wouldn’t have talked so candidly if they had known that Stickler would track them down.

Which seems to be exactly what he’s doing. Stickler reportedly demanded, and got, the transcripts of the supposedly confidential interviews. When Gorrell broke the story, a Labor Department spokesman blandly maintained that there would be no firings, no nasty reassignments, no recriminations of any kind for those whose identities have now been revealed to their chief.

Oh, sure. How would a Labor Department flack – far removed from the front lines – have any idea? You might as well ask the greeter at Wal-Mart.

That said, let’s cut to the chase. The whole point of the investigation was to be independent – of all those responsible for MSHA’s conduct before, during, and after the Crandall Canyon calamity. Confidential interviews were as essential to its independence as water to a fish. Take away confidentiality and you take away any confidence in the investigation – not just this one, but any such investigation in the future. After this breach of faith, can you seriously imagine federal employees talking candidly to investigators about the failings of their agency?

With any luck, Richard Stickler has only a few more months in office. He could have used the time to battle the rising rates of black lung among miners who shouldn’t be being exposed to potentially lethal levels of respirable coal dust. He could have used the time to start correcting all the institutional flaws revealed by Teaster and Pavlovich in their eye-opening report. Instead, he’s burrowing into transcripts, looking for the dirt on who said what.

We’ve seen this movie before. It was called The Caine Mutiny, featuring a Captain Queeg. Things didn’t turn out very well for him (in a role reprised by Richard Nixon). Netflix would do Stickler a real favor by sending him the film – if he’s not too busy to watch it.

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The editorial was written by The Mountain Eagle Contributing Editor Tom Bethell, who has covered coal for the paper off and on for nearly 40 years.  Based in Washington, D.C., he is also the author of The Hurricane Creek Massacre, a book about a 1970 mine disaster, and is a former research director of the United Mine Workers of America. He was part of a team that investigated the Sago mine disaster in 2006.  (The Mountain Eagle celebrated its 90th anniversary last year.)

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See also: “Chao and Stickler did WHAT?”

8/28/update: Salt Lake Tribune editorial “Deceitful Disclosure” Aug 26, 2008