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MSHA nominee faces tough questions at confirmation

Lawmakers in Washington have scheduled a hearing next week to consider confirmation of the Bush administration’s choice to be the nation’s top mine safety regulator.

Marion County native Richard Stickler will likely face tough questioning, following two major mine accidents in West Virginia that have greatly increased concerns about coal-mine safety.

A confirmation hearing will be held Tuesday morning for Stickler, said a spokesman for Sen. Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., who is chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Stickler will face harsh criticism from the United Mine Workers union, which on Tuesday urged President Bush to withdraw Stickler’s nomination.

“American’s coal miners don’t need a coal company executive in charge at MSHA,” UMW President Cecil Roberts said Tuesday. “We need a person who understands safety from the miner’s point of view, and is committed to making the health and safety of the miner the agency’s first priority once again.”

Stickler spent roughly three decades in various management positions for the mining unit of Bethlehem Steel.

From 1996 to 1997, Stickler served as assistant to the president of Performance Coal Co., a subsidiary of Richmond-based Massey Energy Co., records show.

More recently, Stickler worked for about six years, from March 1997 to July 2003, as the top underground mine safety official in Pennsylvania.

While director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau for Deep Mine Safety, Stickler helped with the now-famous rescue of nine miners from the flooded Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pa., in July 2002.

But, Stickler could also face questions about his role in mine safety enforcement at the Quecreek Mine prior to that near-disaster.

At Quecreek, miners were trapped underground for more than three days after they accidentally breached an adjacent, abandoned mine that was full of water.

Millions of gallons of water poured into their active mine, setting the stage for a successful rescue that was broadcast on live television.

Later, at least one state inspector involved in Quecreek oversight said Stickler had not clearly explained to his staff the rules for properly identifying the location of abandoned mine workings near new mining permits.

In a report, the Pennsylvania Inspector General found that Stickler’s agency “inconsistently” applied these rules numerous times before Quecreek.

Two state inspectors who dealt with the Quecreek permits told the Inspector General they did not properly apply the rule to the Quecreek Mine. If they had, the rule would have required a more accurate map showing the nearby abandoned mines, or forced the company to conduct tests to determine their location, according to the IG report.

Stickler has declined interview requests, and administration officials have not responded to questions about his nomination.

If confirmed, Stickler would take over for David G. Dye, who has been running MSHA as acting assistant secretary since Dave D. Lauriski resigned shortly after President Bush won re-election.

Lauriski’s term had become highly controversial — and was an issue in West Virginia during the presidential campaign — in large part because Lauriski spent his entire career working for coal companies.

Dye himself has little experience in the mine safety area, having joined MSHA just six months before being named the agency’s acting chief.

Before that, Dye had worked since June 2001 as a deputy assistant director for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration.

Previously, Dye had worked as a lawyer for several congressional committees, and a public relations staffer at the U.S. Department of Transportation. Before coming to Washington, Dye was an assistant to Alaska’s lieutenant governor and an urban planner with the Alaska Department of Community and Regional Affairs.

Stickler was nominated to the MSHA post on Sept. 15, about 10 months after Lauriski resigned and eight months into Bush’s second term.

On Jan. 5, the day after 12 of the Sago mine workers were found dead, Enzi announced he would “expedite” a confirmation hearing for Stickler.

“The challenge of protecting workers in the mining industry while running an investigation into the Sago tragedy requires a full-time administrator at the helm of MSHA,” Enzi said in a news release.

UMW officials opposed Stickler nine years ago, when he was appointed by then-Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge to run that state’s underground mine safety office.

At the time, the UMW cited MSHA data that showed Bethlehem mines Stickler managed had injury rates that were double the national average.

“Mr. Stickler’s focus throughout his career has been on increasing production and reducing cost,” then-UMW safety director Joe Main wrote to Ridge. “This type of appointment ... reflects upon the philosophy of those that made the appointment.”


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