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Connecticut is not a mining state, but it is a compassionate one. One needed to go little farther than a kitchen table, a water cooler or a couch to hear family, friends and colleagues expressing empathy, sorrow and disbelief about the fate of a dozen Sago, W. Va., miners who died slowly last week in the dark, trapped after a methane explosion in a coal mine filled with lethal gas. The miners’ tragedy has focused the nation on mine dangers. Congress is calling for an investigation into the safety record of the Sago mine, which reportedly had some 208 safety citations last year. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration swears it will get to the bottom of things. Those who believe the Federal Emergency Management Agency was an effective, efficient and forthcoming power in dealing with the Hurricane Katrina horror that wiped out New Orleans will probably find solace in MHSA’s assertions. Others will, and should, be a little more skeptical. Just ask, for instance, the United Mine Workers of America. The UMWA has a vested — even a pecuniary — interest in insuring the health and safety of its union members. It’s not sure that either the mine owners or the Mine Safety and Health Administration shares its concerns. That’s why it has routinely pored over the MHSA’s mine inspector notes and inspection reports to track for itself the safety of individual mines. Unfortunately, its ability to do that abruptly stopped last year when the MHSA changed its rules, saying that such information is no longer available under the federal Freedom of Information Act. It should be noted that the act itself, nearly 40 years old, has not changed. But, MHSA, like many other federal agencies, has been urged by the U.S. Justice Department to become much more stringent on what it released under FOIA — with promises that the Justice Department will back such barrier-building in court. Ellen Smith is the owner of New York-based Legal Publications Services and editor of its flagship newsletter, Mine Safety and Health News. A recognized expert on mine dangers, she posted a blistering analysis and critique of the secrecy that now pervades the federal mine safety administration at her Web site, www.minesafety.com. “On May 18, 2004, Mine Safety and Health News asked for some biographical information on David Dye, the new deputy assistant secretary at MSHA,” Smith noted. “Many in the mining industry had never heard of Dye or even knew that he held the DAS position. [We were] denied that information by Suzy Bohnert, who heads MSHA’s Office of Public Affairs. She said that she was denying this biographical information based on ‘privacy’ concerns. Her exact written statement was: ‘This is a personnel matter, and because of privacy concerns, we can’t discuss this.’ “At first, I thought she was joking or simply misinformed, but after talking with other members of the press and reading reports from other journalists, I found out that the Bush Administration is routinely denying biographical information on political appointees.” Smith points out that recent reports of other mine problems have been heavily redacted — as much as 50 percent in the case of an inspector general’s report on a Martin County, Ky., mine. “There was no good answer for the redactions. It certainly had nothing to do with national security,” Smith asserts. The MHSA will have to answer to Congress on mining problems it finds. But it also should answer to the people of this nation, who are crying for answers as they are crying in sorrow.

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