Qualifications of yet another Bush nominee questioned

President Bush’s nominee to head the federal mine safety agency
issued an urgent advisory to Pennsylvania’s mine operators to update
their maps after the Quecreek mine was flooded in 2002 and almost
killed nine workers.

The following year, a grand jury determined
the state’s underground mine safety agency _ then led by Bush nominee
Richard Stickler _ should have identified the mapping problems sooner.
At the time, Stickler had been running the mine agency for five years.

61, was appearing Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor
and Pensions Committee. There will also be a confirmation hearing
Tuesday for Edwin G. Foulke Jr., who has been nominated to lead the
Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

In prepared
testimony, Stickler said he’s dedicated to mine safety and the mission
of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. He recalled working
underground in West Virginia in 1968 when a methane gas explosion in an
adjacent mine killed 78 workers.

“The sights and sounds of that
experience as well as other tragic mine accidents will be with me as
long as I live,” said Stickler, of Terra Alta, W.Va.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee’s ranking Democrat, questioned Stickler’s commitment to safety.

human life is precious. We must only confirm nominees to safety and
health positions who understand this,” Kennedy said. “Mr. Stickler’s
history is long on coal production experience but short on ensuring
worker safety.”

Kennedy is among a handful of members of Congress
who have called for reform at MSHA after the deaths of 14 West Virginia
miners earlier this month. One main criticism of MSHA, which has a 2006
operating budget of $277 million, is that it’s been run by mining
insiders lax in enforcing fines and opening up documents. It has been
without a leader since November 2004.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga.,
who is also on the committee, said Stickler has practical experience as
an underground manager, superintendent and shift foreman that would
benefit the agency.

“He is a man who, for most of his adult life, has wiped the coal dust off his boots every night,” Isakson said.

received a gubernatorial award for his work on the scene at the
Quecreek mine in 2002 when the nine trapped miners were rescued. He ran
Pennsylvania’s agency from 1997 to 2003 after working for 30 years for
Beth Energy Mines Inc. in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

grand jury investigation of Quecreek did not name individuals and no
criminal charges were filed. The problems were blamed on miners
breaching an abandoned mine that released millions of gallons of water
that trapped them until they were rescued 77 hours later.

In his
urgent advisory after the disaster, Stickler wrote to the state’s
mines, “The consequences of inaccurate maps of abandoned workings can
be catastrophic,” according to documents under reviewed by the Senate
committee and obtained by The Associated Press.

Howard Messer,
who represents eight of the nine Quecreek miners, has said he opposes
Stickler’s nomination because of the secrecy surrounding the
investigation that followed the disaster.

The United Mine Workers
has opposed his nomination to lead the federal agency _ just as it
opposed his nomination to the state agency.

In 1997, the United
Mine Workers wrote in a letter to then-Gov. Tom Ridge that its
evaluation of federal records showed there were incident rates in mines
Stickler ran that doubled the national average in six of eight years.
It noted that one of the mines he managed for five years had two fatal
accidents during that time.

Documents provided to the committee, however, say he was strict in enforcement, which could explain the numbers.

1998, one of Stickler’s own inspectors complained in a letter to him
about a change in policy involving ventilation in mines, documents
show. He said the change would make the industry less safe for
two-thirds of workers and “this policy is strictly an economical
document which neither promotes or extends safety.”

Stickler apparently met with miners in New Stanton, Pa., in 1999, the
United Mine Workers’ safety officer wrote to the head of the
Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection complaining that
Stickler was failing to address miners’ safety concerns.

“The continued tenure of Mr. Stickler will have a grave an immediate impact on state’s miners,” the letter said.


On the Net:

Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee: http://help.senate.gov/