New MSHA headAs deaths in coal mines rise, President Trump last Friday nominated retired coal mining executive David Zatezalo to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Now there’s been a lot of outrage and alarm that Trump would appoint a coal company executive to head MSHA. But what did you expect? There are basically four types of people that you would expect to head MSHA:

  1. A worker-oriented mine safety advocate (Someone like Joe Main who headed the agency in the Obama administration)
  2. A mine safety professional. (Sort of like Bush’s first OSHA head, John Henshaw.)
  3. A campaign contributor or ideologue who knows very little about mining or mine safety, but just wants to undermine the agency’s mission.  (See EPA administrator Scott Pruitt)
  4. A mine company executive who knows the industry, and possibly something about safety.

It’s clearly unlikely that Trump (or any Republican administration) would choose another Joe Main.  A safety professional might have been nice. But we should be somewhat happy we don’t seem have an ideologue.

I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of the mining industry, so when in doubt, I turn to Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Ward’s article on Zatezelo’s appointment notes that “In 2010 and 2011, Zatezalo was a top executive with Rhino when the company had a series of run-ins with MSHA over safety and health conditions at mines in West Virginia and Kentucky during a period when then-MSHA chief Joe Main was ramping up agency enforcement following the Upper Branch disaster.”

MSHA had sent Rhino a “Pattern of Violations” letter due to numerous violations identified by MSHA. Conditions improved, but MSHA was forced to send a second letter when safety conditions began deteriorating again.

Between those two warning letters, crew leader Joseph Cassell was killed at the Eagle No. 1 Mine when rock and coal from a portion of a mine wall collapsed onto him in June 2011. MSHA investigators concluded that Rhino’s efforts to control the mine walls with timbers and conventional bolts were inadequate, something that conditions at the mine had “put the operator on notice” about. Rhino was cited and paid $44,500 in fines to MSHA, records show.

At another Rhino mine in Kentucky, earlier in 2011, MSHA had taken the unusual action of seeking a federal court injunction against the company when it discovered mine employees giving advance notice of an agency inspection to miners working underground.

The Wheeling Intellegencer conducted an interview with Zatezalo.  He’s styling himself as a “working coal man” — ”

he’s been a laborer for the United Mine Workers of America; a mine foreman; a general mine superintendent; a general manager; president of a coal mining company; head of state mining advocacy groups; CEO of a coal company.” [pretty sure when they say “laborer for the United Mine Workers,” they mean a former member of the UMW.]

Eat Shit Bob

But he also has the strong support of some unsavory characters, namely Bob Murray:

It was earlier this year that a number of his industry contacts reached out to him, urging him to come out of retirement and apply for the MSHA post. Among them was Murray Energy Chairman, President and CEO Robert Murray, Zatezalo said.

“There aren’t a lot of people in the industry I don’t know, and people said, ‘You’d be great for that position. I’m going to call Sen. (Mitch) McConnell and tell him he needs to support you for this,’” Zatezalo, who also served as a former chairman of the Ohio Coal Association and the Kentucky Coal Association, said. “I am pretty excited because I think for the first time we have a president who is more in tune with working America rather than being lofty and esoteric in what he wants to do. I feel good about that and I feel there’s some things I can do.”

Murray, you may remember, owned the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where six trapped miners died in 2007.  Murray has always blamed the collapse on an earthquake, which even George Bush’s MSHA denied.  Murray has come into the news again recently when he sued comedian John Oliver who did a hilarious piece on Murray on Last Week Tonight after Murray Energy sent a cease and desist order to the show.

sputtering about pursuing legal remedies “to the fullest extent of the law, including to the level of the Supreme Court of the United States,” Oliver devoted a large part of the segment to him, going so far as to have a giant squirrel named “Mr. Nutterbutter” tell Murray to “Eat shit, Bob!”

And Zatezalo wasn’t crazy about the Obama administration, according to the Intellegencer:

“The policies were wrong,” he said. “I think there were too many elitists in the government who really just had no connection to working America. … I still think of the world as being one that if you can provide opportunities for people, they’ll do well. If you don’t provide opportunities, they won’t.”

He said in his opinion, the Obama administration didn’t set out to destroy coal through “willful persecution,” but instead chose to “ignore it in the hopes that it would just go away.”

Not sure if he considers former Obama MSHA head (and coal miner) Joe Main an “elitist.”

But Zatezalo should get along well with his new boss in the White House, who, like him, hasn’t had any government experience: “I think it’s going to be difficult in that I’m in the position that I don’t know what I don’t know because I’ve never worked in government. I’m not sure of all the rules and restrictions,” he said.

Hopefully he’ll learn faster than his boss.

So What Will He Do?

If confirmed by the Senate, Zatezalo takes the helm of MSHA at a critical time. As Ward describes:

Twelve coal miners have died on the job nationwide so far in 2017, with six of those deaths occurring in West Virginia. Mining deaths are on the rise nationally and in West Virginia, after dropping for several years following the deaths of 29 miners in the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine.

So how will he meet that challenge? Inspections are mandated by law, but whether MSHA will continue with the tough penalties for mine companies that endanger workers remains to be seen. MSHA also had an aggressive regulatory agenda, going after the scourge of black lung, which is spiking in much of Appalachia, and working on a silica standard.

As Celeste Monforton, an occupational health expert and former MSHA employee, sounded somewhat hopeful in an interview with the Huffington Post;

“What will his focus be ― will it be on miners and mine safety, or will he have a philosophy that MSHA is there to help mine operators, provide a lot of compliance assistance, and be wary of taking a tough stand?” she asked.

Monforton said there is still much that MSHA can do to protect miners from lung illnesses, including strengthening the regulations for silica dust, which comes from cut rock.

She said she hopes Zatezalo would remember his experience as a rank-and-file miner, rather than his role as an executive, in regulating mine safety.

“He has seen first-hand the tragedy and the suffering that goes on with people who develop black lung and silicosis,” Monforton said. “It really would be a way for him to make a positive mark.”

Meanwhile, still no word on who Trump will choose to head OSHA.


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