Yes: Still Nameless

“A list of the deceased needs to come from the company.”

That’s what MSHA spokewoman Amy Louviere just told me about the 29 victims in the Upper Big Branch disaster.

Meanwhile — more than a week after the explosion, a spokeswoman for Massey Energy was unable to say “if or when” the company would issue an official listing. A spokeswoman for OMSL has not answered an email with the same inquiry.

MSHA — after doing what seemed a much better job with public information during the emergency, compared with Sago and Crandall Canyon — is in the aftermath once again falling back on deference to the mining company. That’s one of the patterns Congress ordered to be changed in the 2006 MINER Act.

It’s a simple matter. Reasonably prompt identifications by authorities are routine in such diverse fatal cases as traffic accidents, fires, crime, combat, and natural disasters.

In fact, I have never had any difficulty obtaining such an identification from MSHA in a routine mining death. (See below.)

Other authorities do not leave it up to the building owner to identify the victim of a fatal fire. They do not leave it up to the auto manufacturer to identify the victim of a car crash. They do not leave it up to a private security company to identify the victim in a crime that takes place under that company’s watch.

Why are these deceased employees being treated like the private property of their employer?

The identification of deceased persons does not constitute proprietary information or an unwarrantable invasion of personal privacy. If the families of the deceased have been officially notified, and especially if reasonably prompt identification is not forthcoming from the company, then this needs to come from the authorities: MSHA, or the Governor, or the state mine agency, or the state police.

(Note: I have just heard indirectly that a list may finally be released — fairly soon — by the state Medical Examiner. If so, it’s good that at least some agency may be stepping up at last to do the right thing. But that does not justify stonewalling by MSHA.)

Why has MSHA been acting in this odd way?

I can only speculate. I do know two small pieces of background that might have some bearing, but it is just speculation. One: traditionally, MSHA has tried not to be the first to publicly identify an accident victim because of the “lightning rod” aspect of this role. Two: in recent years, MSHA has been under some pressure to roll back information releases in line with OSHA practice. OSHA has traditionally provided only very limited information about specific fatal accidents — a practice that I have always assumed relates to OSHA’s special need to gain employers’ cooperation. Unlike MSHA, OSHA has no legal right of entry for routine inspections and depends much more on vounteerism from employers. MSHA also has a tougher law that makes mining a “pervasively regulated industry” and specifies a vast range of information that is intended to be public. Certain attorneys never could seem to grasp this difference, even back when I was working for MSHA, and kept clamoring for “consistency” between MSHA and OSHA information policy despite their different traditions and the distinct differences in their laws, requiring much more openness from MSHA. Maybe all this is part of the situation.

Meanwhile, obtaining what would normally be a sad but relatively routine, cut-and-dried piece of information — the roster of the dead — has become the object of a convoluted quest. Yes, other journalists have pieced names together from obituaries, Facebook pages, and encounters with families, friends and neighbors. But is that how the larger community should be left to learn the facts in an event of this magnitude?

In contrast, here is another recent fatality in which MSHA had no problem naming the victim in routine early information. This one — like so many — wrung the heart.

Contract truck driver Terry D. Cahill, 57, was killed March 22 while instructing a trainee driver at a bentonite clay mine in Big Horn County, Wyo., according to preliminary information released by MSHA on March 24.

This is from his obituary in the Lovell, Wyo., Chronicle (where you can also find his photograph):

He married his best friend, Cathy Rech, in March of 2006. They retired the following year to go see America in their new and spacious travel trailer.

After the death of his wife in 2008, Terry returned to Lovell and lived with his mother to help care for her.

In addition to his mother, grieving survivors of this kind and generous man included two sons, four grandchildren, and many, many more. So often such accidents seem to take the best among us.

Note: For those who may experience comment problems: I can’t figure out yet why comments at large are being rejected as spam. If it is worth the trouble to become a WordPress member (go to http://www.wordpress.com), comments from members seem to be accepted okay. I’m still trying to figure this out.

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