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Coal mine owner, not MSHA, briefed media

During the entrapment of nine miners in the Quecreek mine flood in July 2002 in Pennsylvania, state mine safety experts and U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials took part in regular media briefings.

At the Sago Mine, Gov. Joe Manchin frequently briefed reporters. MSHA had at least two public affairs officials at the mine site, but never briefed the press. Top MSHA officials, as well as the agency’s press officers, have generally not returned phone calls and have declined to answer most questions about the accident, the rescue operation and their investigation plans.

Throughout the more than 40-hour incident, company officials from mine owner International Coal Group handled most of the task of informing the public through the media.

Asked about that during a briefing on Wednesday afternoon, ICG President Ben Hatfield said that the company was in control of what information was released to reporters from around the world gathered at the disaster site.

“We determine when we make media releases,” Hatfield said.

Mine safety experts, though, say that it was not supposed to work that way. When MSHA arrives at a major mining accident, agency officials issue an order that puts them in charge of the site. No activity can occur without MSHA approval.

“I have been shaking my head and wondering where in the world MSHA has been over the last three days,” said Celeste Monforton, a former special assistant to Clinton administration MSHA chief Davitt McAteer who now teaches environmental and occupational health at The George Washington University.

“I’m troubled that all the official news from the mine is supplied by the mining company,” Monforton said Wednesday. “When I was at the agency, our mine emergency manual gave specific responsibility to our MSHA public affairs specialists.

“The company was free to provide whatever information they wanted, but if the information was incorrect, MSHA’s public affairs specialists had the obligation to quickly correct it,” she said.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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