WV Senator says “thanks, but no thanks” to Trump’s nominee for mine safety agency

West Virginia’s senior U.S. senator will not be supporting President Trump’s nominee to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) issued a statement on Wednesday which said:

“While I appreciate Mr. Zatezalo’s willingness to serve, I cannot support his confirmation to lead MSHA. After reviewing his qualifications and record of safety during his time in the coal industry, I am not convinced that Mr. Zatezalo is suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.”

Ken Ward at the Charleston (WV) Gazette was first to report on David Zatezalo’s nomination. It was made public on Saturday, September 2 (Labor Day weekend) on the White House website. The announcement indicated that Zatezalo most recently served as chairman of Rhino Resources. It’s a publicly-traded coal mining and oil/gas extraction firm with operations in CO, IL, KY, UT, and WV.

As he does so well, Ward put the nominee’s background in proper context. In his September 2 story, the Gazette reporter described some of the mine safety happenings while Zatezalo was with Rhino Resources.

  • The company had a “series of run-ins with MSHA” over serious safety violations. In 2010 and 2011, Rhino’s Eagle #1 coal mine in Raleigh County, WV was on track— not once, but twice—for stepped up enforcement under MSHA’s “pattern of violations” authority.
  • In the midst of MSHA warnings over a “pattern of violations” at the Eagle #1 mine, Joseph Cassell, 33, was fatally injured while working there.
  • At the firm’s CAM Mine #28 in Pike County, KY, MSHA had evidence of a manager giving miners advance notice that an inspector was at the mine (which is illegal under the Mine Act.)  In 2011, MSHA took the matter to court. A federal judge ruled in favor of MSHA and granted an injunction against the mine operator.

Those troubling matters and more appeared in a letter sent last week to Labor Secretary Alex Acosta from three of Senator Manchin’s colleagues. Senators Patty Murray, Sheldon Whitehouse, and Robert Casey requested letters and other documents from MSHA which may help to characterize Zatezalo’s perspective on worker safety and health. The Senators are members of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pension, which is considering Zatezalo’s nomination for MSHA chief.

The lawmakers’ inquiry also extends to time periods when the nominee served as vice president for mining operations at AEP (2001 – 2004) and in leadership positions with the Ohio Coal Association (2004 – 2014). The Senators note that the trade group sued MSHA over its “pattern of violations” authority. They asked Labor Secretary Acosta to provide the requested documents at least three days before David Zatezalo’s confirmation hearing which is scheduled for Tuesday October 3.

A “smoking gun” document is hard to come by and I doubt MSHA has one. What Senators do have is their West Virginia colleague’s “thanks, but no thanks” rejection of President Trump’s nominee to lead MSHA. Senator Manchin was Governor of West Virginia during the 2006 disaster at the Sago mine that killed 12 coal miners and the 2010 coal dust explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 men.

“I have comforted too many families who have lost loved ones serving our nation in the mines.

Investigations into those disasters revealed the consequences of lax enforcement and inadequate regulations (here, here.) No one, including Manchin, wants that repeated. No doubt that was on the Senator’s mind when he wrote:

“After reviewing his qualifications and record of safety during his time in the coal industry, I am not convinced that Mr. Zatezalo is suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.”

Will Manchin be able to convince any Republican Senators that Trump’s pick is not right for the job?

Tuesday’s confirmation hearing may provide a hint.