Barricading the Storm

Why the White House Won't Release Its Katrina Papers

Having not heard of the fire in Colorado, the Voice phoned the MSHA field offices in Colorado. There, nobody had heard about any current pressing matters. Finally the United Mine Workers Communications Director Phil Smith explained that Dye was referring to "the ongoing fire in Alma [West Virginia], which is being fought very professionally by the people up there, and a fire [at the West Elk mine in Colorado] that has been burning for two months." That explanation was then confirmed by MSHA staff in Colorado.

When asked why the Colorado fire was such a big deal that it caused Dye to leave the hearing, a Labor Department spokesperson explained, "Certainly, when there's a mine fire going on, for the acting director of MSHA, it's a pressing matter for him." But when asked what was so pressing about the long-smoldering West Elk fire, he responded, "I don't have any more details."

In a way, you can't blame Dye for wanting to hightail it from the senators; he has been stuck in the job of acting assistant secretary for a year. That's because the Bush administration has failed to fill the head office at MSHA. The Department of Labor website lists vacancies for the assistant secretary, a second deputy assistant secretary, and the chief of staff for MSHA. The current candidate to run MSHA, Richard Stickler, nominated September 15, is only now coming before Congress for confirmation.

Flying over the Superdome aboard Marine One, President George W. Bush surveys the flooding of New Orleans
photo: Eric Draper/
Flying over the Superdome aboard Marine One, President George W. Bush surveys the flooding of New Orleans

Neither the government bureaucracy nor the Congress could care less about coal miners, even though coal is the basic fossil fuel that has powered American industry from the industrial revolution on and almost certainly will end up being at the center of U.S. energy policy. So why such scant attention to the mines? Perhaps there is a clue in the following: Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, who has served since 2001, is married to Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky. In the run-up to his 2002 re-election, McConnell received $129,100 from mining firms in campaign donations, topping all other members of Congress benefiting from that industry.

Additional reporting: Colin Gustafson, Michael Roston, Ali Syed

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