Byrd who has been actively involved in congressional mine safety oversight hearings since 14 miners were killed in two January accidents in his home state has said he is not yet convinced that Richard Stickler could be a strong enough leader for MSHA. The agency has come under scrutiny in the wake of 24 mining deaths nationwide since the beginning of the year.
Byrd said he has yet to meet with Stickler, who previously worked as an industry executive for Beth Energy mines before heading the Pennsylvania's mine safety agency. Before Byrd considers Stickler's nomination, the West Virginia Democrat said he wants to learns more about Stickler's views on issues such as the urgency of coal safety improvements and the need for modern communication equipment.
"Until I know that Mr. Stickler will make safety a No. 1 priority for MSHA, I will not allow his nomination to move forward," Byrd said.
According to Senate rules, any single senator has the power to block nominations or legislation.
"By all means I have a hold on Richard Stickler's nomination," Byrd said. "This country is facing serious mine safety issues that continue to put lives at risk"
Byrd has not been the only one to have reservations about Stickler's nomination. During a hearing held last month by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee which is the Senate committee that has oversight on workplace safety issues Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Mass., and Sen. Hilary Clinton, D-N.Y., grilled Stickler on current problems MSHA has been facing. Both senators said they thought that Stickler's answers were not adequate.
United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts also has been an outspoken critic of Stickler.
"Career coal company managers and executives like Mr. Stickler spend their time figuring out how to get around safety rules and regulations in order to increase production," Robert said earlier this month. "That's the last kind of person American coal miners need as our nation's top watchdog for safety."
Byrd Wins Millions for Mine Safety Enforcement
In other mine safety news, Byrd, in conjunction with Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va, is making moves on the legislation process to increase mine safety in President Bush's latest budget request.
In a unanimous 100-0 vote, the Senate approved Byrd's proposed bill to amend the federal budget bill, which will add $184 million over 5 years to hire additional mine safety inspectors and implement mine rescue technologies.
Although more than 200 coal enforcement personnel have been lost since 2001 through attrition and have not been replaced, the president's budget includes no funding for hiring additional inspectors, according to Byrd.
"I commend Sen. Byrd for taking the lead on pushing for critically-needed MSHA funding," Rockefeller said. "With this amendment, we may be able to provide MSHA with the funding it needs to do the job right."
Phil Smith, spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America, said he applauded Byrd's efforts to look out for miners' well-being.
"We share Byrd's concerns with the way the mine agency has been operated and we also praise his commitment to increase funding for the mine agency," Smith said.