Washington, DC — One of the worst mining disasters in American history resulted in a paltry $5,500 fine and could recur on hundreds of similarly vulnerable sites across the country. Yet a newly released Labor Department Inspector General report on the nation’s largest coal slurry spill answers few questions while providing backhanded support for a whistleblower’s charges that the Bush administration hamstrung the official investigation and subsequent enforcement, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).
What many have called the biggest environmental catastrophe in the southeastern U.S. took place on October 11, 2000 when a huge coal slurry impoundment atop an underground mine broke through to the shafts below and punched out the side of the mountain. More than 300 million gallons of toxic waste (a release larger than the Exxon Valdez oil spill) poisoned 100 miles of waterways killing all marine life and most of the wildlife in Martin County, Kentucky.
The Clinton administration team in the Labor Department’s Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA) assigned to investigate the Martin County “impoundment failure” was reconfigured by the Bush administration before it could complete its work. One of its members, Jack Spadaro, filed whistleblower complaints that were investigated by the Labor Inspector General. That report remained largely under wraps for more than six years, as the report fragments obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Ellen Smith of Mine Safety and Health News were incomprehensible.
A nearly complete version of that IG report was finally released last week and it contains evidence that –
- Charges against Massey Coal, the parent company of the Martin County impoundment operator, were watered down and narrowed. Many of the most serious charged were nixed by Bush appointees. One of the only two surviving charges was thrown out and the other had the penalty reduced by an administrative law judge to $5,500. Significantly, the Obama administration is still withholding a crucial 3-page segment of the report concerning the most serious charge;
- MSHA officials ignored warnings impoundment was unsafe. After the failure, MHSA specialists and an engineering firm were pressured to water down findings of agency complicity; and
- During the MSHA investigation, the investigative files were kept away from investigators who were asked to sign a report before being allowed to read it. Despite citing mounds of evidence to the contrary and contrary to the findings of MSHA’s own internal review, the IG report’s final sentence reads: “No evidence was uncovered to substantiate any allegations relating to MSHA’s Martin County Coal accident investigation.”
“Reading this report makes it clear why the Bush administration never wanted it to see the light of day,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that there are more than 200 coal slurry sites in the U.S. sitting atop underground mines, the same situation that led to the Martin County blow-out, and 400 slurry impoundments whose failure could cause loss of lives. “The Obama administration needs to re-open this case, set the record straight, and make sure this type of calamity can never happen again.”
PEER is asking Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to open a new investigation into the Martin County spill and take steps to prevent similar mine disasters. PEER is also asking the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to review the work of the Labor IG, why it was kept secret for so long and why some portions are still being withheld.