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.

    Stickler,
    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.

    “Every
    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.

    Stickler
    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.

    The
    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.

    In
    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.”

    After
    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.

    ____

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