The Senate Wednesday confirmed a former coal executive with a dismal safety record to lead the government’s top agency regulating mine safety. President Trump’s nomination of David Zatezalo, former CEO of Kentucky-based Rhino Resources, was approved by a party-line vote of 52-48.
Zatezalo will bring an unconventional perspective to the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) after serving as a top executive at a company hit with two “pattern of violations” citations by the agency. That specific sanction is a rarely used tool that former MSHA head Joe Main began wielding in 2010 after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster killed 29 people.
Rhino Resources was cited for two “pattern of violations” between November of 2010 and August of 2011, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. In the time between those two citations, tragedy struck at one of the company’s mines.
Between those two warning letters, crew leader Joseph Cassell was killed at the Eagle No. 1 Mine when rock and coal from a portion of a mine wall collapsed onto him in June 2011. MSHA investigators concluded that Rhino’s efforts to control the mine walls with timbers and conventional bolts were inadequate, something that conditions at the mine had “put the operator on notice” about. Rhino was cited and paid $44,500 in fines to MSHA, records show.
At another mine in Kentucky, the company was sanctioned for giving advance notice to miners that MSHA inspectors were on-site to investigate claims of workers smoking underground.
Zatezalo defended his time as head of the company, saying that the violations were the fault of local managers and that they were quickly fired. But that excuse didn’t pass muster for one of the coal industry’s biggest boosters in Washington, Democratic senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
“In West Virginia we are painfully familiar with the human toll that accompanies a mine accident. I have comforted too many families who have lost loved ones serving our nation in the mines. Strong leadership at the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) is non-negotiable,” he said in a September statement explaining his opposition to Zatezalo’s nomination.
Among Zatezalo’s first priorities on the job will be to grapple with the rise in mine deaths in 2017. As of last week, 14 miners had died on the job this year, up from 8 in 2016 and 12 in 2015, when coal companies employed 25,000 more people than they do today.
Some have suggested that this uptick is due to lax enforcement since Trump took office, a claim Zatezalo denied during his confirmation hearing. “I do not believe that the fatalities that we have had to date have been due to a lack of enforcement,” Zatezalo said. “But I don’t have all the details on that.”