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3 died at operations managed by Bush nominee

At least three miners died at coal operations managed by the Bush administration’s nominee to run the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, government records show.

Marion County native Richard Stickler, a longtime coal company official, is expected to face tough questioning during a confirmation hearing Tuesday in Washington.

The hearing is scheduled before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

Mine safety is under additional scrutiny following the deaths of 14 West Virginia miners in two accidents this month. And last week, the United Mine Workers asked President Bush to withdraw Stickler’s nomination.

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

Between 1980 and 1992, at least 13 miners died at Bethlehem Steel’s coal operations, according to MSHA records.

The three fatalities at mines Stickler managed occurred in 1984, 1990 and 1992 at operations in Pennsylvania. In each case, Stickler was listed as manager, chief health and safety officer or general superintendent of the operation where the accident occurred, records show.

The worst of the accidents, in June 1990, killed mechanic Donald J. Smith and injured eight workers at the Cambria Slope Mine No. 33 near Ebensburg, Pa.

The accident occurred when a portal bus derailed while carrying workers from a longwall section to a mine shaft bottom.

In its official report on the accident, MSHA said that BethEnergy Mines Inc. had not maintained the portal bus suspension system in proper working order. MSHA investigators concluded that the shock system on the bus provided an average of only 48 percent of its designed rebound. One shock was not attached properly.

“The accident occurred because the suspension system on the vehicle had deteriorated which would have provided considerably less stability than originally designed,” the report said. “The speed of the portal bus ... may have contributed to the accident.”

MSHA also found that a similar accident occurred involving the same portal bus about a month earlier.

Another accident on Stickler’s watch occurred in April 1984 at the Mine No. 51 Somerset Portal, according to MSHA records.

Joseph J. Letecki, a laborer, was killed. Letecki and three co-workers were pouring concrete from two cars. An underground locomotive hit one of the cars, and Letecki was crushed between the car and the mine wall.

In its report, MSHA concluded that the accident occurred because the locomotive operator did not give an audible warning and did not stop before reaching the work area.

Then, in May 1992, equipment operator Frank Kovash was killed at the Cambria Slope Preparation Plant.

Kovash was operating a dozer that fell through a raw coal pile. Coal engulfed the dozer, trapping him inside the cab for 10 hours.

In its report, MSHA concluded that “the cause of the accident was management’s failure to develop, implement and enforce a plan to prevent mobile equipment from being operated over coal reclaim feeders.”

Since being nominated by Bush in September, Stickler has declined interview requests. The White House has not returned calls about his nomination, and the Labor Department has declined comment.

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 in large part because he had 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.

Sticker, 61, grew up in Barrackville and in 1963 was on the town’s high school basketball team that won 27 games in a row, including a state championship. Five years later, Stickler graduated from Fairmont State College with a bachelor of science degree in general engineering.

At BethEnergy, Stickler started as a general laborer and rose to manager of the company’s Pennsylvania operations. He took over management of the company’s Boone County holdings in West Virginia in 1994.

After that, he worked from 1996 to 1997 for Performance Coal, a Massey Energy subsidiary.

In March 1997, Stickler was named director of Pennsylvania’s underground mine-safety agency, a post he held until July 2003.

UMW officials opposed Stickler’s nomination to that job, complaining that the Bethlehem mines Stickler operated had injury rates that were double the national average.

“American’s coal miners don’t need a coal company executive in charge at MSHA,” UMW President Cecil Roberts said last week. “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.”


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