Critics Unsure of New MSHA Nominee's Commitment to Safety

Richard Stickler, President George W. Bush's nominee to head the nation's top mine safety agency, is coming under fire from critics for his record as the head of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.

Stickler was in charge of the bureau at the time of the Quecreek Mine flood in 2002, which trapped nine miners and nearly cost them their lives. In its final report issued Aug. 12, 2003, MSHA found that the primary cause of the water inundation into the mine was the use of an undated and uncertified mine map of the adjacent, water-filled Harrison No. 2 mine that did not show the complete and final mine workings. Using this map led to inaccurate depiction of the location of the Harrison No. 2 mine workings on the Quecreek No. 1 mine map required by MSHA and on the certified mine map submitted to Pennsylvania in the permitting process.

The root cause of the incident was the unavailability of a certified, final mine map for Harrison No. 2 in the state's mine map repository.

Black Wolf Coal Co., Musser Engineering Inc. and PBS Coals Inc. each received one citation for a violation of federal mine safety standards in using the inaccurate and outdated map. The investigators noted, "The final map may not have been available ... but other information ... would indicate that the boundaries used were questionable." The companies are contesting the citations.

Stickler, who received a gubernatorial award for his work on the scene at the Quecreek Mine flood, at the time urged Pennsylvania mine operators to update their maps so another tragedy like the Ouecreek Mine flood could be avoided. His actions were too little too late for some critics, who point out that in the year following the Quecreek incident, 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.

Kennedy Among Stickler's Critics

As Stickler made his appearance Jan 31 before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, opponents are expected to question his commitment to safety.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass, one of the Congressional members who have called for MSHA reform in the wake of the Sago Mine deaths in early January, said the Senate must only confirm nominees that understand the preciousness of human life.

"Mr. Stickler's history is long on coal production experience, but short on ensuring worker safety," Kennedy said.

Stickler spent about 30 years as a coal company manager with Beth Energy. Mines managed by Stickler were marked by worker injury rates that were double the national average, according to government data cited by the United Mine Workers union, also expected to make an appearance during the confirmation hearings. One of the mines he managed for 5 years had two fatalities during that time, they said.

In a letter sent to President Bush last week, the United Mine Workers asked for the withdrawal of Stickler's nomination.

"The foxes are guarding the henhouse, and the confirmation of Mr. Stickler would make matters worse for coal miners," the letter said, stating that a mine agency should not be managed by former coal company executives.

Stickler noted in his prepared testimony that his experience working in mines will only add to his determination in ensuring working safety. He recalled working underground in West Virginia in 1968 when a methane gas explosion in an adjacent mine killed 78 workers.

"The sights and sounds of that experience, as well as other tragic mine accidents, will be with me as long as I live," he said.

Investigation Team Appointed

In other MSHA news, MSHA Jan. 31 announced the appointment of a team to investigate the underground coal mine fire at the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1 in Melville, W.Va. Two miners were killed in a Jan. 19 fire at the mine.

"MSHA's investigation will look into the cause of the Alma Mine fire and any violations of safety and health standards," said David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "We will conduct a thorough investigation to ensure we find the root cause of this accident to help prevent similar accidents in the future."

An independent team of MSHA mine safety professionals nationwide will evaluate all aspects of the accident, including potential causes and compliance with federal health and safety standards. The team will examine the accident site, interview mine personnel and others with relevant information, review records and plans and inspect any mining equipment involved at the mine. A formal report issued by MSHA will summarize the findings and conclusions of the investigative team, identifying root causes of the accident and how the incident unfolded.

Any contributing violations of federal mine safety standards that may exist will be cited at the conclusion of the investigation.

Dye announced last week that Kenny Murray, MSHA district manager, Pikeville, Ky., is heading the team.

Murray has held a number of positions in his career with the agency, including special assistant to the administrator and assistant district manager. He has extensive experience in mine rescue and recovery operations and accident investigations.

Other team members include Michael Finnie, supervisory special investigator, Madisonville, Ky.; Anthony Webb, staff assistant, Pikeville, Ky.; Charles Pogue, roof control specialist, Prosperity, Pa.; Ronald Stahlhut, electrical specialist, Vincennes, Ind.; Anthony Burke, coal mine inspector, Whitesburg, Ky.; Dennis Beiter, supervisory mining engineer, Triadelphia, W.Va.; Derrick Tjernlund, mining engineer, Triadelphia, W.Va.; William Francart, fire protection engineer, Pittsburgh; and attorneys Keith Bell and Dan Barish, Department of Labor Solicitor's Office, Arlington, Va.

Since the initial hours of the incident, MSHA personnel have maintained a constant presence at the mine site, accompanying mine rescue teams underground, providing technical assistance and monitoring ongoing conditions at the mine.

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