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Bush Should Withdraw Mine Safety Nominee

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(Jordan Barab is a blogger at Confined Space: News and Commentary on Workplace Safety, Labor and Politics. He is a former OSHA official and spent 18 years working for labor unions.  His column will run here regularly on Tuesdays at 6pm PT/9/m ET — JH)  

It’s no secret to anyone with a ticking pulse that this has been a bad year for American coal miners. And for those people whose attention had moved on to other issues, the deaths earlier this week of five more miners served as a reminder that the problem hasn’t gone away. 31 coal miners have been killed on the job already this year, compared to 5 at this time last year, 11 at this point in 2004, 13 at this date in 2003 and 12 at this time in 2002. And the problem shows no sign of abating. At this rate, we’re heading toward the highest number of coal mine fatalities in 20 years — a time when we had over 60% more coal miners than we have today.

The underground carnage has occurred at a time when the job of Assistant Director of Labor for Mine Safety has been open. The position had been held during Bush’s first term by former mining executive David Lauriski. Lauriski resigned in November 2004, and in September 2005 Bush nominated Richard Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration. Stickler has spent his career in the mining industry, mostly as a mine manager, and as Director of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety from 1997 to 2003. He was head of the Bureau during the 2002 Quecreek Mine flood that trapped 9 miners who were eventually rescued.

After a lackluster performance at this confirmation hearing, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions voted 11-8 vote, along party lines, to confirm.  No final vote has been taken on the Senate floor, however, because West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd has put a hold on the nomination because he wants to "make sure that whomever is confirmed to lead the agency is serious about safety."

I’m not sure if anyone is reading this who matters, but it is clear to me that President Bush should withdraw Richard Stickler’s name as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.

The problem is that Richard Stickler was nominated to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration in long forgotten, bygone era — back in the days when almost no one knew what MSHA was, or cared much about what the agency did. That era ended on January 2, 2006 — three and a half months after Stickler’s nomination — when the Sago coal mine exploded.

I’m not saying that Stickler is a bad person, or even that he doesn’t care about the health and safety of mineworkers. In fact, let’s assume that he is sincerely interested in improving the safety of American miners and has every intention of turning MSHA around. The fact is that he is clearly unsuited for this job, and I’m not basing this only on the fact that Stickler is yet another in a long line of Bush administration industry foxes that have been appointed to guard this country’s henhouses.

The job of leading one of this country’s workplace safety and health agencies is much more than just having good intentions and some safety experience in the industry. Moving the health and safety agenda forward requires fighting tough political battles on several fronts. The most obvious is the battle against those companies who seek to shortcut safety in order to maximize production, particularly when coal prices are at their highest level in 20 years.

It took this country over 200 years to figure out that leaving workplace safety in the hands of employers did not ensure safe working conditions. This lesson was ignored when George Bush came into office, but it’s been painfully re-emphasized since January. Even with the best of intentions, the person who heads MSHA needs a healthy sense of skepticism, a clear sense of right and wrong and strong character in order to deal with what former mine safety official Tony Oppegard calls "the greed or indifference of mine operators." Most of all he or she needs to be independent of the companies that MSHA regulates.

Issuing unpopular and costly regulations and enforcing the law against the good buddies with whom you’ve spent your entire career is not easy even for the strongest, most principled individuals. Richard Stickler has given us no reason to believe that he has the strength, independence or character to do the job.

But the struggle against unsafe employers is only one of the battles that an MSHA director will need to fight in Washington DC. Two other major obstacles are the United States Congress and the Bush Administration. Even if we assume that Stickler is sincere about improving MSHA’s effectiveness, it’s highly doubtful that he is strong enough or experienced enough to effectively fight the all-important inside political battles.

Our Congressional representatives — particularly those in control at this point — like to talk a good line, but, like employers, don’t always follow up with needed resources. Five and a half months after Sago, bi-partisan mine safety legislation was introduced into the Senate just last week. And only the Democrats have introduced legislation in the House of Representatives. One might think that an Republican agency director would not have a problem with a Republican Congress. But in reality, that only makes the job harder for someone who is sincerely interested in change. Bucking your own party is never easy, but it’s even harder in this case where your boss (Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao), who is responsible for running the agency into the ground for five years, is married to the Senate Majority Whip (Mitch McConnell). Neither Chao nor McConnell has ever shown any sincere interest in workplace safety.

The most difficult barrier for any agency head sincerely interested in change is, of course, his own administration which may be concerned — in the short term — with limiting political fallout from mine disasters, but has no interest or motivation to do much of anything that might disturb their industry patrons once the headlines disappear and the photos of grieving widows fade from people’s memories.

There is nothing in Stickler’s history or testimony at his confirmation hearing that shows him to be the man best qualified for this job. Most of his career was spent in industry where the mines he managed had injury rates that were double the national average, according to government data assembled by the United Mineworkers. And while serving as Pennsylvania’s director of the Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, his role in not preventing the Quecreek mine near-disaster has been told. The mine had flooded to to errors in mine maps. Following the flood, which resulted in the amazing rescue of trapped miners, a grand jury determined that the bureau, which had been headed by Stickler for 5 years at that point, should have noticed the mapping problems sooner.

Stickler made an equally unimpressive impression at his confirmation hearing. His appearance was less than dynamic, to put it mildly. Some observers quipped that they were tempted to check his pulse to see if he was alive. But it wasn’t just his style that was lacking. As Charleston Gazette editors wrote in an editorial opposing Stickler’s confirmation:

Despite widespread belief that more communication equipment and better safety enforcement might have saved at least 11 of those men [lost at Sago], Stickler told U.S. senators that current mine safety laws are “adequate.” A day later, two more miners died in separate incidents in Boone County.

What this says is that although Richard Stickler may be a very nice man who may be sincerely interested in making sure more coal miners don’t get killed, what this country needs in order to make serious change in this agency is someone not only knowledgeable and concerned, but someone with the vision, personal strength, independence, dynamic personality and political sophistication to navigate the treacherous shoals of corporate interests, public opinion, the media, and the internal politics of Congress, Elaine Chao’s Department of Labor, the Office of Management and Budget and the Dick Cheney’s energy industry friendly White House.

I don’t think there there’s anyone in either party who sincerely thinks that Richard Stickler is even close to the kind of person that is needed to lead MSHA. I honestly don’t even think — in his heart of hearts — that Richard Stickler thinks that Richard Stickler is that man.

It is clear that the time has come — even for a business dominated Republican administration — to realize that doing anything less than appointing an individual who can energetically lead the charge for an overhaul of this nation’s mine safety system is nothing less than condemning more miners to preventable and needless death.

President Bush should withdraw Stickler’s name. And if Richard Stickler really wants to make a contribution to the safety of America’s miners, he should do the right thing himself.

More stories on recent mine disasters here.

 Jordan Barab blogs at Confined Space

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