Wrongful termination for coal-mining official?

A congressional committee wants to know if mining safety official Jack Spadaro is being fired for his whistle-blowing activities.

By Phillip Babich
Published December 16, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

[Read the original story.]

Members of a congressional committee have launched a probe into personnel actions taken against a high-ranking mine safety official who is accusing the Bush administration of engaging in a coverup.

On Nov. 18, three Democratic members of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce requested that U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao provide them critical documents and information to help them assess whether Jack Spadaro, the superintendent of the National Mine Safety and Health Academy, is being wrongly terminated.

In April 2001 Spadaro resigned from a government team assigned to determine the causes of the Martin County Coal Co.'s slurry spill on Oct. 11, 2000, an environmental catastrophe that fouled 100 miles of waterways, annihilated wildlife, poisoned drinking water and soil, and caused extensive property damage. An engineer with a career in federal regulatory agencies spanning more than 30 years, Spadaro alleged that the accident-investigation report wouldn't be "complete and accurate" because Bush administration officials had cut the investigation short and severely limited its scope.

Spadaro spoke out publicly about the administration's handling of the Martin County Coal investigation. On June 4, 2003, he was put on administrative leave.

Spadaro has also accused the top leadership at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a wing of the Department of Labor that regulates the mining industry, of handing out lucrative contracts to their friends and former business associates.

In October 2003 MSHA took steps to fire Spadaro, charging that the superintendent had abused his authority at the academy, made unauthorized cash advances on a government credit card, and failed to follow supervisory instructions and appropriate accident procedures.

In their letter to Chao, Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., Robert Andrews, D-N.J., and Major Owens, D-N.Y., wrote: "Obviously, Mr. Spadaro's status as a whistleblower -- questioning the conduct of the Martin County Coal investigation and the Department's use of no-bid contracts with friends and associates of Department officials -- raises a very serious concern about the nature of the current disciplinary investigation against him. It is incumbent upon the Committee to ensure that whistleblowers such as Mr. Spadaro are afforded fair treatment and the full protection of the law in employment matters."

An aide for Miller said that the House Committee is still waiting for the Department of Labor to fully comply with its request. Miller is the senior Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee and a senior member of the Resources Committee. His office was alerted about the possible firing of Spadaro through press accounts, including Salon's Nov. 13 story.

Phillip Babich

Phillip Babich is an investigative journalist based in the San Francisco Area. His articles have appeared in Salon, TomPaine.com, and Pacific News Service. His work as a radio producer has been heard on "Making Contact," Pacifica Radio, NPR, CBC, CBS, and AP. He's also a 2003 grant recipient from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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