Stickler Takes the Reins at MSHA

President George W. Bush finally got the man he wanted to head MSHA: Richard Stickler.

With Congress in recess for the month of October, Bush was able to circumvent the Senate - which twice rejected Stickler - and appoint Stickler to head the embattled agency.

The appointment comes more than a year after Bush first nominated Stickler, a former mine manager and the former director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. Senate Democrats - including Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia - blasted Stickler for having a track record of putting production and profits ahead of safety.

Byrd originally placed a legislative hold on Stickler's nomination in March, relying on Senate Rule 31, which states that whenever the Senate adjourns for more than 30 days, all pending nominations pending are rejected and returned to the president.

In early September, Bush renominated Stickler, only to have the Senate reject the nomination again.

Rather than nominate a different candidate or renominate Stickler again, the Bush administration opted to use its Constitutional authority to appoint Stickler while the Senate is in recess during October and early November.

Stickler will most likely remain at the MSHA post, without Senate approval, until 2007. The position has been vacant since November 2004.

With 41 deaths thus far, 2006 has been the deadliest year in coal mining since 2001, when 42 coal miners perished. In all of 2005, there were 22 coal mining fatalities, according to MSHA.

Differing Perspectives on Stickler

Depending on whom you listen to, Stickler either is a safety crusader with a valuable treasure trove of mining experience or a shill for the mine industry with a lax commitment to safety.

As soon as Bush appointed Stickler last week, the Department of Labor issued a statement expressing Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao's support for Stickler.

"We appreciate that Congress gave MSHA new tools to protect miners through the MINER Act, and now we have the expert who best knows how to use those tools," Chao said. "Richard has extensive experience in mining and protecting miners' lives that he will use to strengthen enforcement of mine safety laws and help ensure the safety and health of miners nationwide."

Although some blame Stickler's policies at the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety for the Quecreek Mine accident in 2002, the Department of Labor is calling Stickler "one of the architects of the dramatic rescue" of the nine Quecreek miners. The miners were trapped underground for 4 days after they cut through the wall of a flooded, abandoned mine that did not appear on their maps. Millions of gallons of water poured into the new mine where they were working, but miraculously, they survived and were rescued.

The Department of Labor lauds Stickler for serving "as a planner and decision-maker at the mine site command center during the entire rescue operation."

Meanwhile, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the appointment of Stickler is an "affront to the men and women who risk their lives every day in our nation's mines."

"The administration knows that Mr. Stickler could not pass the Senate because of his poor safety record, but they chose to put the interests of the industry ahead of the safety of the miners and installed him in the job anyway," Kennedy said.

Rockefeller blasted Stickler's safety oversight while at Beth Energy Mines Inc. for three decades.

"The mines he ran when he was in the industry were some of the most dangerous and most frequently cited for safety violations in the entire industry," Rockefeller said. "His mines had a rate of preventable accidents that was as much as three times the national average. In fact, despite broad bipartisan support for new, more aggressive mine safety laws, Richard Stickler said in his Senate nomination hearing that no new laws were necessary. "

Byrd claimed Stickler "lacks the trust of the miners he's charged to protect and has a skewed view of what the safety priorities should be."

"We need a bulldog agency that will place miner safety over all other priorities, and not an agency that will continue to place a higher priority on mine production than on miner protection," Byrd said.

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