Huffpost Politics

Mine Safety Czar Richard Stickler: Another Bush Fox Guarding the Henhouse

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The man who will oversee the federal government's investigation into the disaster that has trapped six workers in a Utah coal mine for over a week was twice rejected for his current job by senators concerned about his own safety record when he managed mines in the private sector.

President George W. Bush resorted to a recess appointment in October 2006 to anoint Richard Stickler as the nation's mine safety czar after it became clear he could not receive enough support even in a GOP-controlled Senate.

In the wake of the January 2006 Sago mine disaster in West Virginia, senators from both sides of the aisle expressed concern that Stickler was not the right person to combat climbing death rates in the nation's mines.

Democrats, led by West Virginia Sens. Robert Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, and Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, questioned the safety record of the mines Stickler ran when he was a coal company executive.

Over the course of his career in the private sector, Stickler managed various mining operations for Bethlehem Steel subsidiary BethEnergy Mines, Inc.

The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette reported in January 2006 that three workers died at BethEnergy mines managed by Stickler during the 1980s and 1990s.

Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr. wrote that in the worst of the incidents, one mechanic was killed, and eight other workers were injured when the portal bus that was carrying them to the mine-shaft bottom derailed. A report later said the portal bus had not been properly maintained.

Stickler began his career as a general laborer at BethEnergy, eventually rising to manage the company's operations in Pennsylvania and Boone County, West Virginia.

He worked briefly for Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal in 1996 and 1997 before becoming head of the Pennsylvania mine safety office. Stickler retired from the post in 2003.

In addition to concerns about the safety record at his mines, Stickler also faced opposition from senators, union leaders and relatives of those killed in mine accidents who felt an industry insider should not oversee safety inspectors.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said that miners "could not tolerate" another industry executive overseeing their health and safety.

"Too often these mining executives place priority on productivity, but fail to focus on miners' health and safety," Roberts told Mike Hall at the AFL-CIO's blog in June 2006.

The wife and daughter of a miner killed at Sago wrote a letter to lawmakers that same month urging them to reject Stickler's nomination.

"Mr. Stickler is a longtime coal executive and because of his connections with the coal industry, we are concerned that his primary objectives may be solely on compliance and production, not on miners' health and safety,'' Debbie Hamner and Sara Bailey wrote in a letter quoted by the Gazette.

Bush first nominated Stickler to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration in September 2005. He received renewed attention from lawmakers following the Sago disaster. By May 2006 it was clear that Byrd and other Senate opponents would not allow Stickler's nomination to pass, and Republicans withdrew a scheduled vote on his job.

In July 2006, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao hired Stickler as a consultant and adviser, but insisted through a spokeswoman that she was not attempting to circumvent the nomination process.

In August and September of the same year, the Senate twice voted to send the Stickler nomination back to the White House.

In October 2006, Bush used a recess appointment to install Stickler -- a decision that was quickly denounced by senators from both sides of the aisle.

Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that he "didn't think Mr. Stickler was the right man for the job." Another Pennsylvania Republican, Rick Santorum, also told the paper he was "disappointed" the White House had not let senators debate and vote on the nomination.

In a written statement Wednesday, Byrd told The Huffington Post that MSHA's response to the Crandall Canyon incident will be a test of Stickler's "worthiness to be properly confirmed by the United States Senate."

Byrd also expressed concern about the slow pace of the implementation of new mining safety laws established in the wake of the Sago disaster.

"I told Mr. Stickler about my concerns earlier this summer," he said. "Until I see better progress from MSHA, I will retain my hold on Mr. Stickler's nomination."