06/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster: Should Investigation Be Public?

Ken Ward Jr., who writes the 'Coal Tattoo' blog for West Virginia's Charleston Gazette, argued on Monday that the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration should break from its long history of conducting secret hearings when it probes last week's deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.

[As of now, the hearings] won't be open to the public ... Almost certainly, the investigative interviews will occur behind closed doors. Members of the press and the public will be shut out from this terribly important government task. Despite the efforts of the Salt Lake Tribune, which has sued unsuccessfully in federal court previously to try to open such proceedings, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration has staunchly insisted on secrecy in these proceedings.

Why not Web cast the interviews? Why not quickly make transcripts available publicly on the Internet. And why not hold periodic press briefings where detailed information about what has been found so far is made public?

All of the secrecy might make sense, if MSHA and state officials didn't almost always allow coal company lawyers to sit in on the interviews. [...] One way around that is for MSHA to invoke its authority under federal law to conduct the investigation through a public hearing. In addition to cutting out this issue with the lawyers -- and having the positive benefit of being open and transparent -- this route has the advantage of giving MSHA something it doesn't otherwise have: Subpoena power to get documents and force witnesses to come and testify (or at least show up and take the 5th).

The open government group Sunlight Foundation echoes Ward's view. "This is one instance where transparency would create the kind of accountability we expect," Sunlight's Paul Blumenthal writes. "We are used to seeing executives hauled before congressional committees to testify about violations, corporate practices or harmful products and getting scolded by a series of lawmakers who seem more interested in posturing for cameras or appealing to their district than to actually investigating an issue. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigators and regulators don't need to get reelected, so I sincerely doubt there would be any need to engage in the type of political gesticulating that goes on in congressional committees."