Sunday, April 22, 2001

Chao urges end to probe dispute

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE — Labor Secretary Elaine Chao urged speedy completion of a report on a dispute over the Martin County coal slurry spill investigation, saying the time has come to end the Mine Safety and Health Administration “food fight.”

        MSHA “should finish its investigation and consider all points of view, as it has already committed to me,” Ms. Chao said Friday in a statement.

        Ms. Chao indicated the allegations raised by Jack Spadaro, a member of the MSHA team investigating the spill, would not delay the probe.

        This month, Mr. Spadaro, a veteran mine safety expert, asked to be removed from the investigation team. Mr. Spadaro said the investigation would be a whitewash because MSHA was not examining its own conduct, including what he contends is a failure to act on internal warnings about the Martin County Coal Co. impoundment that collapsed, dumping 250 million gallons of coal waste.

        Mr. Spadaro said he supplied the Labor Department's inspector general with 20 documents to support his allegations, including several MSHA memos that warned about the safety of the eastern Kentucky impoundment before its Oct. 11 collapse. MSHA never forced the company to make adequate structural changes, Mr. Spadaro said.

        Ms. Chao, in her statement, said, “It's time to call off the MSHA food fight over the Martin County Coal slurry investigation. I want the inspector general to review the information that has been supplied to that office and make a report as quickly as possible.”

        Kathy Snyder, a spokeswoman for MSHA, said the inspector general's review would not delay the completion of the report, expected within 30 days.

        “The focus of the accident report is facts,” Ms. Snyder said. “The inspector general's investigation will look at MSHA's actions.”

        Mr. Spadaro was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

        Stuart Roy, a Labor Department spokesman, said the inspector general's office could not comment on the situation it is reviewing.

        Mr. Roy said the Labor Department views Mr. Spadaro's allegations as serious. “Let's look at the allegations and stop with the back-and-forth,” he said.

        Mr. Spadaro, an MSHA employee who is superintendent of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy in Beckley, W.Va., has said Timothy Thompson, the head of the investigation, has sought to protect MSHA at the cost of conducting a thorough investigation.

        Mr. Thompson, a district manager in MSHA's Morgantown, W.Va., office, has not returned phone calls.


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