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[greenyes] Eric Shapiro Redux
- Subject: [greenyes] Eric Shapiro Redux
- From: "Peter Anderson" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Sun, 9 Nov 2003 13:46:05 -0600
NEW YORK TIMES - 11/9/03
Mine Safety Official Critical of Policies Faces Firing
By JAMES DAO
WASHINGTON, Nov. 8 - The Bush administration has notified a mine safety
official who has sharply criticized federal mining policies that it intends
to fire him, according to documents and the official's lawyers.
The official, Jack Spadaro, the superintendent of the National Mine Health
and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va., has been an outspoken critic of a
federal investigation into a huge spill of coal sludge in eastern Kentucky
three years ago. The accident, at the Martin County Coal Company, is
considered one of the biggest environmental disasters in the Appalachian
Mr. Spadaro accused political appointees in the Mine Safety and Health
Administration of cutting the investigation short, playing down the coal
company's culpability and not holding federal regulators accountable for
weak oversight. He was a member of the team investigating the spill before
he resigned in protest in 2001.
Mr. Spadaro has also raised questions about no-bid contracts that he
contends were awarded to friends and former business associates of David D.
Lauriski, the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, and
other senior mine safety officials. His complaints led to an investigation
by the Department of Labor's inspector general.
The dispute has become a flashpoint between the Bush administration and
critics of its mining policies, who contend the administration has tried to
weaken environmental and safety regulations to help big coal companies that
contribute heavily to the Republican Party. Mr. Spadaro's firing, the
critics contend, is retribution for his outspokenness.
Rodney Brown, a spokesman for the mine safety and health administration,
said on Friday that the agency would not comment on a personnel matter. But
federal officials have in the past said that the Martin County investigation
was tough and thorough, and denied any improprieties with the no-bid
In a 10-page complaint sent to Mr. Spadaro on Oct. 2, mine safety officials
accused him of abusing his authority, failing to follow orders and proper
procedures and misusing a government credit card by taking unauthorized cash
advances that cost the government $22.60 in bank fees.
"I have considered your 26 years of service, recent satisfactory performance
ratings, and the fact that you have had no prior disciplinary action taken
against you in determining the level of discipline to propose," a senior
mining official, Frank Schwamberger, wrote in the complaint. "However, these
factors do not outweigh the seriousness of your actions."
The complaint says that Mr. Spadaro can be terminated at any time 30 days
after its receipt.
Mr. Spadaro's lawyer, Jason E. Huber, argued in a response that the
complaints, even if proved, were too trivial to justify firing.
Mr. Huber also said that several of the complaints against Mr. Spadaro
involved labor-management disputes that had been resolved through grievance
procedures. And he cited newspaper reports that dozens of other mine agency
officials had used their government cards to make personal purchases without
repaying the government. He said Mr. Spadaro had repaid his advances.
"It is readily apparent that Mr. Spadaro's proposed termination is not a
result of meritorious complaints regarding how Mr. Spadaro dispatched his
duties," Mr. Huber wrote, "but is rather the Department of Labor, Secretary
Elaine L. Chao, Senator Mitch McConnell and the Bush administration's
retaliation against Mr. Spadaro for whistle-blowing activities."
Ms. Chao as secretary of labor oversees the mine safety agency. Senator
McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, is her husband. Mr. Spadaro has asserted
that Mr. McConnell has tried to protect Martin County Coal and its parent,
the Massey Energy Company, because they are major campaign contributors.
A spokesman for Mr. McConnell declined to comment.
The Martin County spill occurred on Oct. 11, 2000, when a portion of a huge
lagoon of coal slurry - a thick black byproduct of the processing of coal
from strip mines - broke through the earth into an abandoned underground
More than 300 million gallons of the black wastewater spewed through the
mine and into local streams, killing hundreds of thousands of fish, flooding
homes, polluting wells and blackening waterways all along the Kentucky-West
The spill was twice as large as its biggest forerunner, in Buffalo Creek,
W.Va., more than 30 years ago, which killed 125 people. The Martin County
spill caused no casualties, mainly because it poured into two separate
hollows, diminishing its impact.
The panel that investigated the spill found that the coal company and
federal regulators had been aware of potential problems at the slurry
impoundment for years, Mr. Spadaro and other panel members said.
For example, after a similar slurry spill at Martin County Coal in 1994, a
federal mining engineer recommended nine measures to bolster the slurry
lagoon. But federal regulators allowed the company to expand the
impoundment, which at the time of the spill contained 2.2 billion gallons,
without completing the safety measures, panel members said.
An engineer for the coal company also told investigators that the company
was aware years ago that the natural barrier separating the impoundment from
the abandoned mine was as thin as 15 feet, less than what was required by
law. Investigators said the company did not take action to strengthen the
Mr. Spadaro and some other panel members said they wanted to issue eight
violations against Massey Energy, impose heavy fines and hold federal
regulators accountable for inadequate oversight. But the final report
recommended only two violations, carrying total fines of $110,000.
After resigning from the panel, Mr. Spadaro filed a complaint with the
inspector general asserting that senior mine safety officials, including Mr.
Lauriski, had interfered with the investigation and tried to punish him for
refusing to sign the report.
The inspector general's report, released in January, concluded that while
"some retaliatory events" against Mr. Spadaro "may have occurred," they were
not related to his role in the investigation.
A federal grand jury in Kentucky is now looking into possible criminal
charges relating to the spill. Massey Energy has declined to comment.
Mr. Spadaro was placed on administrative leave from his $108,000 a year job
in June when the mine safety agency opened an investigation of his
management of the academy.
In the tiny Martin County village of Inez, which was hardest hit by the
spill, slurry still bubbles up in creek beds on rainy days. Some homeowners
have received monetary settlements from Massey Energy to cover damages
caused by the sludge. But many remain bitter, saying it was just by chance
that the 2000 accident was not as deadly as Buffalo Creek.
"It's changed my view of the company," said Glenn Cornette, a 68-year-old
retired miner whose home on Coldwater Creek was one of the first hit by the
wave of sludge. "They just lied to me so much."
Nina McCoy, a biology teacher at the local high school, said many people in
this low-income hamlet now bought bottled water because they believed that
the slurry had poisoned their water supply. Slurry contains heavy metals,
but state officials have said the area's water is fine.
"I think people hold less against the company than they do against the
agencies who are supposed to protect us," Mrs. McCoy said. "They knew that
this things was going to bust. And yet they let it go."
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Ph: (608) 231-1100
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Cell (608) 438-9062
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