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Former union official to head mine safety agency

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former safety director for the United Mine Workers union was confirmed this week by the U.S. Senate to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Joe Main will serve as assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health in the Obama administration. He was confirmed by unanimous consent by the full Senate Wednesday night, after being approved by the labor committee earlier this month without a hearing or any public questioning.

Main served for 22 years as administrator of the UMW's occupational safety and health department before he retired in 2004. Before that, Main also was a special assistant and a staffer in the union safety department.

A native of Greene County, Pa., Main began working in the mines in 1967 and also served as a local mine safety committee representative and a local union officer.

"We sincerely believe that Joe's long experience as an advocate for miners' health and safety on the job will bring a refreshing change to an agency that for too long has favored production over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health in American mines," said UMW President Cecil Roberts.

"We understand that Joe has many challenges confronting him as he takes the helm, not the least of which will be suspicion and confrontation from mine operators who are not used to vigorous enforcement of the law."

MSHA came under renewed scrutiny during the Bush administration because of a series of major mining accidents that started on Jan. 2, 2006, when 12 miners died in the Sago Mine Disaster in Upshur County. Sixteen more deaths followed at the Aracoma Mine fire on Jan. 19, 2006, and at the Darby Mine Disaster in Kentucky in May 2006 and the Crandall Canyon Disaster in Utah in August 2007.

Mine safety advocates pointed to MSHA's focus on industry-friendly "compliance assistance" programs and President Bush's appointment of former coal company officials to run the regulatory agency. After each of the disasters, internal reviews and other investigations found numerous lapses by MSHA that played a role in the deaths.

In response to the deaths, Congress passed and Bush signed the MINER Act, the first major rewrite of federal mine safety law in 30 years. MSHA, though, has struggled to implement portions of the law and to fill vacant inspection positions that Bush left open or eliminated.

House Labor Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., said that Main would be "a tireless advocate for the health and safety of America's miners and will bring a needed jumpstart to an agency that suffered from years of neglect."

"I look forward to working with him to ensure that our nation's miners return home to their loved ones safely at the end of each shift," Miller said.

Meanwhile, the chief safety official for the National Mining Association delivered a speech in Pittsburgh touting the industry's recent safety performance.

"U.S. mining's annual safety record to date surpasses its record for all previous years at this point," said NMA vice president Bruce Watzman. "Our record for lost-time accidents underscores the strong commitment coal and mineral mining have made to improving mine safety."

So far this year, 13 coal miners and 16 metal-nonmetal miners have died in the U.S., according to MSHA data.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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