Mine safety chief blames high toll on calendar
ARLINGTON, Va. — In a business tower across the Potomac River from the nation’s capitol, the corner office reserved for the country’s top mine safety regulator provides a commanding view of suburban Washington.
But the office’s new occupant, West Virginia native Richard Stickler, hardly seems to notice.
“I don’t have time to look out the windows,” Stickler tells a visitor who tries to take in the sights.
Stickler admits he’s got his work cut out for him.
As the Jan. 2 anniversary of the Sago Mine disaster approaches, the coal industry is closing out its deadliest year in more than a decade.
Through Friday, 46 coal miners had died in mining accidents nationwide, the most since 47 were killed in 1995. West Virginia leads the nation with 23 mining deaths, the most in the state since 28 miners died on the job in 1981.
“It’s been a disastrous year,” Stickler said during a 90-minute interview last week.
In the coalfields and on Capitol Hill, pressure continues for improvements to stop the death toll. Calls for reform will no doubt increase next month, when Democrats take over control of both houses of Congress.
Stickler acknowledges the pressure, but says it is a good thing for the agency he now leads, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
“The reason for the scrutiny isn’t good, but the scrutiny will help improve the safety and health program,” Stickler said. “It’s something that should create a sense of urgency.”
Stickler is also cautions against making too much of this year’s spike in deaths, especially because it followed a record-low of 22 deaths in 2005.
If the Sago disaster had occurred a few days earlier, in 2005, it would have made that year’s death count 34, about average for the last decade or so, Stickler said.
“If you move Sago up two days, then in 2005 we have just an average year and 2006 would have been just an average year,” he said.
“Mine safety doesn’t see a calendar,” Stickler said. “It doesn’t know what year it is or what day it is.”
In late October, Stickler took over for David G. Dye, who had been running MSHA as acting assistant secretary since Dave D. Lauriski resigned shortly after George W. Bush won re-election.
Bush originally nominated Stickler in September 2005, but the move received little attention until four months later, when 12 miners died at Sago.
Congressional Democrats and the United Mine Workers union jumped to oppose Stickler, and his nomination was sent back to the White House twice without his being confirmed by the Senate.
The Marion County native spent about 30 years working for coal companies, primarily as a mine manager for Bethlehem Steel’s coal arm. He worked briefly for Massey Energy, and then became chief of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety.
Today, Stickler shrugs off opposition to his nomination and offers a lengthy defense of the safety performance at mines he managed for Bethlehem.
“A lot of that is just politics, and some of it is rooted in a lack of factual information,” Stickler said. “I know the facts. I know the truth, so I don’t let the politics bother me.”
Stickler says that the safety performance at two Bethlehem mines he managed — where poor records have been cited by the media and his opponents — improved greatly during his tenure.
“People say, ‘Oh, he managed a mine that was worse than the national average,’ but they don’t tell you the rest of the story,” Stickler said.
Stickler says he ended up at Massey only because the Richmond, Va.-based coal giant bought Bethlehem’s Eagles Nest Mine near Van when he was managing it.
Stickler declined to comment for the record on the safety practices he saw at Massey, or on the company’s overall safety record over the years. But he said the state’s report on the January fire at the company’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 mine — still under investigation by MSHA — was disturbing.
“The conditions that existed are not reflective of a mine that is being properly managed in the area of safety,” he said.
On Friday, Stickler visited West Virginia to tour a Webster County coal preparation plant operated by Brooks Run Mining.
In a news release, MSHA noted that the facility won a prestigious Sentinels of Safety Award in 2005 for having no reportable accidents during its employees’ 122,000 hours worked that year.
But in 2004, two Brooks Run miners were killed in a five-week period, one at the preparation plant Stickler visited and another at a nearby underground mine. MSHA cited the company in both deaths, and Brooks Run paid a total of $66,000 in fines.
“They had those two fatalities, and they made a commitment that they were going to do something drastically different,” Stickler said during a Friday afternoon visit to the Gazette-Mail newsroom. “Obviously, this company has made a commitment to safety. That’s the way they’re running their business.”
Stickler, 62, grew up in Barrackville, just northwest of Fairmont. His father was a miner, and he watched his grandfather die of black lung.
In 1961, Stickler was captain of the Barrackville High School basketball team that won 27 games in a row, including the state championship.
Stickler worked underground, and was on the job in an adjacent mine in 1968 when an explosion at Consolidation Coal’s No. 9 Mine at Farmington killed 78 workers.
“Some of my high school friends and some of my friends’ relatives were killed at that mine,” Stickler said. “I remember the grief and the suffering.”
Stickler continued working underground on the night shift, and attended Fairmont State College during the day. He completed an engineering degree, and moved up into mine management.
Stickler says he’s working to mend fences with some of his opponents, having met recently with labor unions that represent miners across the country.
When asked why MSHA hasn’t updated families of the Sago victims recently on its disaster investigation, Stickler said he wasn’t aware of the problem and promised to set up a meeting.
But Stickler also recently declined to meet with widows of the miners killed in the May 20 Kentucky Darby disaster and other families of fallen Kentucky miners, saying he wanted to hold off until MSHA finishes its Darby investigation.
Stickler says MSHA is still working on plans for creating an agency liaison with families of miners killed on the job, a post mandated by Congress as part of the mine safety legislation passed earlier this year.
Stickler hesitates to criticize the way Lauriski ran MSHA, noting that “it’s always easy to be a Monday morning quarterback” and that “everyone has a different way of looking at things.”
So far, Stickler is more likely than Lauriski to say anything critical of the industry he regulates, but he also insists that only a small portion of that industry consistently violates safety rules.
Stickler promised that his agency would begin to take stronger enforcement action against that “very small percentage” of renegade operators.
“The big picture is that the biggest problem is a lack of compliance with the laws we have on the books,” Stickler says.
During his confirmation hearing in late January, Stickler was pressed to explain if that meant MSHA was not properly enforcing the law.
“I wouldn’t call it an enforcement problem,” Stickler told lawmakers.”
“... Compliance is when you have operators — in some cases, a small percentage of operators will try to comply with the law when MSHA is at the job site, but that is the only time they try to comply with the law. And that is what I mean by a compliance problem.”
Stickler also says that the concept of mine safety “compliance assistance” is important and has been widely misunderstood.
“It doesn’t mean that you don’t enforce the law,” he said. “It means you help people to comply with the law.”
Stickler says one of his priorities is the hiring, training and deployment of 170 new coal-mine inspectors, a move that will help rebuild an inspector force drastically downsized by Bush administration budget cuts.
As for future budgets, Stickler said he would ask for more money, but that such decisions would not be his to make.
“It’s up to the president to propose a budget, and it’s up to Congress to approve a budget,” he said.
“There’s a limit on those resources, but I will not hesitate to ask for additional resources.”
Stickler said his visits with MSHA personnel around the country have confirmed early rumors he heard about staff morale problems.
“Their morale has been hurt by the events of this year, but we can’t let that get us down,” he said.
“We have to pick ourselves up and identify the things that will prevent recurrences.”