BOB GARFIELD: From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone.
WOMAN: Terry Michael Helms is why I'm here today. [CRYING] I hope that being here today and tomorrow, I can have several questions answered.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, the Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state of West Virginia held public hearings on the Sago mine disaster that gripped the nation in January, when 12 of 13 men died after first having been reported alive. The risks inherent in the practice of mining rarely ever grip the nation until something goes horribly wrong. In fact, when it does, many people ask, are there still mines? Ellen Smith runs the newsletter Mine Safety and Health News. She says mining actually is on the rise, even as the federal government increasingly restricts access to information about mine safety. In the case of Sago, Smith says the response from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA, hit a new low.
ELLEN SMITH: I call it the FEMA of mine disaster press relations. Typically, what has happened in the past, when you had a mining disaster, is MSHA will send down one or two very experienced press people. Those press people are in constant communication with the Command Center. When they find out any information, they will go and they will brief the families and they will answer questions for as long as they need to answer questions. Then they go from the families and they will go to wherever the press is based, and they will tell the press what they know and answer any questions that need to be answered. And then they go back to the Command and Control Center until the next update, typically an hour later. In the case of Sago, they left it up to the company to deal with the press relations, while the company still had to help oversee the mine rescue. In addition, the two most experienced press people in mining disasters, they were left sitting back in Arlington, Virginia at MSHA headquarters.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So obviously, there was a great deal of just bad decision making and incompetence in handling the Sago tragedy, but you were writing more than a year ago that the information flow from MSHA had gotten slower and slower and that they were less and less responsive to freedom of information requests. This isn't an issue of competence any more. It's an issue of policy.
ELLEN SMITH: It's absolutely an issue of policy. In June 2004, the Mine Safety and Health Administration decided that it was no longer going to release mine inspection notes unless all litigation had concluded. And so what this meant for me as a reporter is that if there was a mine accident and I wanted to see what decisions a mine inspector might have made before the accident, I could no longer get that information, nor could families, and mine operators couldn't even get that information either. After Sago, MSHA received letters from Congress and, in fact, MSHA has released inspector notes now. So they've reversed that policy. What we don't have are the miner witness interviews from Sago. And that information used to be released, and they're not doing that in the case of Sago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What is the rationale they give you for withholding that information?
ELLEN SMITH: Because they have enforcement proceedings going on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There have always been enforcement proceedings going on, and you've had access to this kind of material during the course of those proceedings during past disasters?
ELLEN SMITH: That's correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, you also have written that even basic information such as the resumes of new hires at MSHA were denied you or are so heavily redacted as to be almost unusable for, quote, unquote, "privacy reasons."
ELLEN SMITH: That's what they're claiming. And it wasn't just a situation that I found at MSHA, but when I started researching it, I found that it was across the board at other agencies. And what you find out is that, you know, people have industry ties. Why hide it? If this is the person that you've chosen, that person should be able to live, you know, under the eye of public scrutiny.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, where does this leave reporters then?
ELLEN SMITH: It leaves us reporters in a huge bind. I tend to get my information from MSHA employees who believe that the press should have this information. Now, I have to tell you that if they were ever caught, they would probably be fired.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All of this, of course, assumes that journalists are still, in fact, actively interested in getting their hands on any information they can about the mining industry. I wonder if that's still the case? Mining country is seeing mass closures of bureaus, even as mines themselves are opening up more and more and more across the country.
ELLEN SMITH: That's right, because, you know, mining isn't a sexy issue. [CHUCKLES] Mining companies are not going to advertise in your local papers, yet they're very politically powerful people and they give a lot of money to election campaigns. And reporters aren't given the time to do the kind of investigative reporting that's been done in the past.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so what happens post-Sago?
ELLEN SMITH: I think that Sago has definitely been a wake-up call that mining is going on in all parts of this country Reporters are learning how to navigate MSHA's website to get the information they need, and reporters have started looking into their backyard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Yeah, but how long really do you think it will last?
ELLEN SMITH: It's going to last until MSHA issues its final report, and then I think that Sago will fade into oblivion like any other disaster.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right, Ellen. Thank you very much.
ELLEN SMITH: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ellen Smith runs the newsletter Mine Safety and Health News. She joined us from her home in upstate New York.