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There is an article in the Washington Post that covers an important topic, but leaves a strange, vaguely metallic taste in the mouth. The article in question is entitled, "W.Va. mine disaster calls attention to revolving door between industry, government" by Kimberly Kindy and Dan Eggen. The article starts with a telling statistic.

More than 200 former congressional staff members, federal regulators and lawmakers are employed by the mining industry as lobbyists, consultants or senior executives, including dozens who work for coal companies with the worst safety records in the nation, a Washington Post analysis shows.

That is not a bad beginning to an important issue. Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there. Let me highlight some of the more egregious lapses in journalism.

First, the Post engages in some creative whitewash. The article touches on the use of coal industry officials to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) during the Bush administration. It introduces Dave Lauriski and Richard E. Stickler as coming from the mining industry (neglecting to mention that both were coal industry executives), but then goes on to give each man an opportunity to defend their record and claim they had enforced safety regulations. Compare that to the detailed discussion of the MSHA after the Sago Mine disaster in this article by Ken Ward Jr. in the Washington Monthly. (Ward is the best journalist covering the coal industry in the nation, bar none.)

Under the Bush appointee Dave Lauriski, a former mining executive, the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has stressed cooperating with mine operators over policing them. During his tenure, he filled the agency’s top jobs with former industry colleagues, dropped more than a dozen safety proposals initiated during the Clinton administration, and cut almost 200 of the agency’s 1,200 coal mine inspectors. Mine-safety experts have linked many of these actions to the causes of deadly mine accidents since 2001.

The only hint in the Washington Post article that the Bush administration relaxed enforcement while being run by former coal executives was this admission about Lauriski.

He oversaw the writing of regulations in 2004 that allowed conveyer belt tunnels to double as ventilation shafts. The practice -- advocated by coal companies but opposed by many safety experts -- was identified as a key contributor to a 2006 Massey mine disaster, in which a fire killed two workers, records show.

The Post also neglected to mention the curious case of David Dye. Dye served as interim director of MSHA after Lauriski resigned in 2004 and held the post until Bush used a recess appointment to name Strickland to the job over the objections of Robert Byrd and other members of the Senate. Dye was something of an enigma since he had no experience in the mining industry.

On May 18, 2004, Mine Safety and Health News asked for some biographical information on David Dye, the new Deputy Assistant Secretary at MSHA. Many in the mining industry had never heard of Dye or even knew that he held the DAS position.

Mine Safety and Health News was 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.

Mine Safety and Health News article by Ellen Smith

Before coming to D.C., Dye was chief counsel to the Alaskan executive and legislative branches, no doubt instructing them on how to comply with environmental regulations. In the hallowed halls of Congress, Dye served as chief counsel for the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee (chaired by Frank Murkowski, R-AK) and the House Energy and Commerce Committee (chaired by Robert Barton, R-TX). As acting director of MSHA, he is known for three things. Dye had mining industry groups "pledge allegiance" to the MSHA. His stump speech to coal industry gatherings, most of which were closed to the public, included pointed references to the human element in accidents, especially drug and alcohol abuse by miners. Dye made substance abuse education a major priority of MSHA and a required part of accident investigations. Finally, Dye walked out of the Senate hearing on the Sago Mine disaster rather than answer questions.

Second, the Post article engages in deceptive framing. That false framing can be seen in this statement contrasting the Bush and Obama administrations appointments to MSHA.

Mining experts said Democratic administrations often fill regulatory jobs with labor union executives hostile to coal companies. Joseph A. Main, Obama's MSHA head, directed health and safety programs for 22 years at the United Mine Workers of America.

Notice the false equivalence of industry versus union representatives in overseeing an agency regulating worker safety. Notice the prominent mention of labor union executives while referring to Bush appointees as industry veterans. Notice the unsubstantiated and unsourced reference to "hostility" by union appointees, followed by reference to Main as coming from the UMWA. And surely the head of MSHA under Clinton must have come from the union...

In the Clinton administration, it became the job of J. Davitt McAteer, a native of Fairmont, to try to make coal mines even safer. McAteer was a first-year law student at West Virginia University when the Farmington mine blew up, and the disaster prompted him to organize a group of classmates to study coal mine safety in West Virginia. Their report helped persuade Congress to pass the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, and was eventually published as a book, Coal Mine Health and Safety: The Case of West Virginia.

After graduation, McAteer worked with the consumer activist Ralph Nader on workplace-safety reforms and was running a small public-interest law firm, the Occupational Safety and Health Law Center, when Clinton selected him to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Washington Monthly article by Ken Ward Jr.

Third, the Post article demonstrates selective memory (or reporting). Take a look at this paragraph on the door from MSHA to industry.

The Post's examination identified nearly a dozen former MSHA district directors who recently took jobs as executives and consultants with Massey or Murray Energy, the two U.S. mining companies with the worst safety records. Their mines have been the sites of at least three accidents in the past decade, claiming 40 lives. The two companies together have more than 5,700 pending safety violations.

Can you spot what is missing? What administration did those "nearly a dozen former MSHA district directors" come from? It must have slipped the reporter's mind. The same curious omission can be found in the discussion of former Massey CEO Stanley Suboleski, the man Bush appointed as director of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission. The Commission reviews legal changes to MSHA decisions. However, the Post showed no reticence in discussing another member of government that went on to become a lobbyist for Peabody Energy.

Coal giant Peabody Energy, for example, which ranks fifth in mine safety violations, employs about 50 lobbyists and spent nearly $6 million last year to lobby on a range of issues, including climate change and energy regulation, records show. Key representatives of the St. Louis-based company include former Democratic House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, disclosures show.

Peabody and Gephardt officials did not respond to telephone messages, and numerous other lobbyists and industry officials declined to comment.

Gephardt's picture even accompanies the article. I am not going to defend Gephardt. Nevertheless it is curious that "Republican" never appears in the article, even when discussing the Bush administration, yet there are a number of references to Democrats. The slant even shows up up in the discussion of how Senator Obama cosponsored a bill to give MSHA subpoena power and greater latitude to shut down dangerous mines but was thwarted by "a veto threat from Bush and opposition from some coal-state Democrats."  The Post article was a journalistic failure but a remarkable public relations piece for the party that cannot be named.

Originally posted to DWG on Sun Apr 18, 2010 at 09:44 AM PDT.

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