Trump’s mine safety nominee defends MSHA inspectors, calls silicosis “unacceptable”

President Trump’s nominee to head the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) appeared today before a Senate committee for a confirmation hearing. David Zatezalo answered questions about the epidemic of black lung cases, an increase in mine worker fatalities, the need for safety assistance for small mine operators, and more. Zatezalo began his career in 1974 as a UMWA coal miner and most recently served as chairman of Rhino Resources.

I watched the webcast of Zatezalo’s confirmation hearing. The nominee noted his experience managing 39 different coal mines in the U.S. and Australia. I suspect he has more years of experience managing coal mines than any previous MSHA chief.

Here are some of the exchanges between Senators and the nominee:

On Don Blankenship:

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA): “The CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, who served a one year sentence for conspiracy to violate mine safety laws has asked President Trump and MSHA to reopen the investigation into the Upper Big Branch incident, in which 29 miners were killed. Would you honor that request should you be confirmed?”

Mr. Zatezalo: “Senator, absent any new evidence I don’t see any reason why it should be reopened.”

Zatezalo gets two thumbs up for his response.

On the very poor safety record at one of his mines:

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA): “When you were CEO of Rhino Resources the Eagle #1 mine was put on [MSHA’s] proposed pattern of violation notice in November 2010 and then again August 2011. A pattern of violation notice is issued when safety violations are extensive and enforcement action is not immediately addressing the problems. Do you think those sanctions…were fair and appropriate?”

Mr. Zatezalo: “I was not proud of the fact that we got designated as a PPOV mine. I did not try to lawyer up and stop anything from happening. You know, if you haven’t done your job, we should be big kids and deal with it as such.”

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA): “Do you think you would have any challenge working with the senior career staff at MSHA given that some of them were involved in taking enforcement action against your company?”

Mr. Zatezalo: “No sir, I don’t. They [MSHA] did what they were supposed to do.”

Another thumbs up for Zatezalo. I liked hearing him support MSHA officials for doing their job—a job that requires putting miners’ safety above all else.

On the number of MSHA inspectors

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA): “Do you have any sense of the adequacy of the number of inspectors at MSHA.”

Mr. Zatezalo: “It seems to me that the number of inspectors today is pretty good. From the data that I see, MSHA has been making  all of the required inspections, which is four per year [in underground mines.] We certainly don’t want to let that fall down. Just as I wouldn’t want to drive on the highways without police or constables to take control of speeders and drunk drivers, inspections in mines in U.S. are a necessity. Inspections have to continue and I don’t think they should continue at a diminished rate either.”

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA): “I hope Mr. Zatezalo that if you were to be confirmed and you did not see the level of inspectors that you would expect, you would advocate for more funding, and more support, and make that clear to Congress.”

Mr. Zatezalo: Absolutely would sir.

Zatezalo was emphatic when he said “absolutely” and I give him a thumbs up. I take him at his word that he will stand up to Secretary Acosta’s and the White House’s bean counters. Otherwise, it will be on his shoulders if MSHA fails to fulfill its statutory responsibility to conduct the required mandatory inspections at every U.S. mining operation.

On black lung and silicosis: 

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA): “In southwest Virginia, there has been an epidemic of progressive massive fibrosis—that’s the most severe form of black lung disease. …The largest cluster of this disease ever documented is found in southwest Virginia and more are being uncovered every week in a clinic in St. Charles, Virginia.

“..It’s been reported to me that some of this severe lung damage is caused by mining rock mixed with thinner coal seams causing miners to then inhale crystalline silica, which is far more toxic than coal dust. … It’s been reported to me, that you said the technology to monitor silica dust in real time does not exist. Talk to me a little bit about that. Is there the possibility, technological possibility of getting to the point were we can more effectively monitor? Can you elaborate on that?”

Zatezalo politely answered the Senator’s question about the limitations of the current dust monitoring system. Specifically that it may take a couple of weeks before sampling results are analyzed at a laboratory and reported back to the mine. But, Zatezalo gets a special thumbs up for redirecting his answer to controlling silica dust as the first line of defense. The solution to the national disgrace of miners with silica-related disease is not better sampling—it’s controlling miners’ exposure to respirable dust.

Mr. Zatezalo: …I understand the National Academy of Sciences, as well as NIOSH and MSHA, are putting together a report that should be available in January to delineate and hopefully offer suggestions on how to address this. Silicosis is not an acceptable thing for our [miners.]

“…Coal dust is something at this point that we think we can handle fairly well. Silica is much more difficult to handle. I figure we’re going to have to go some engineering type controls, and really increase ventilation, and really increase water to be able to control it.”

Like Senator Kaine, Senator Casey also had questions about coal miners being diagnosed with black lung and silicosis. He referred to the regulations adopted by MSHA in 2014 to address coal mine dust.

Senator Bob Casey (D-PA): “Tell me about how you would approach enforcement of [the rules adopted by the Obama administration on coal mine dust.]”

Mr. Zatezalo: Sir, that enforcement is ongoing today… and would have to continue. I would not propose any reduction in the enforcement of [those rules.] …I would not see that diminish  in any way. The only things that remains, that needs to be investigated further is silicosis and the silica issues.

I wrote last week about West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin’s announcement that he would not support Zatezalo’s confirmation. Prior to that Senators Murray (D-WA), Casey (D-PA) and Whitehouse (D-RI) sent a letter to the Labor Department asking questions about the nominee’s previous dealings with MSHA. None of those Senators, however, raised those concerns at today’s hearing.

It will be a few weeks before we find out whether David Zatezalo gets a thumbs up from a majority of Senators.