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Richard Stickler at a news conference after a Utah mine disaster in 2007. Stickler was a coal industry executive named by Bush to regulate the coal industry. (AP)

Reporters: Get the candidates to focus on federal safety groups

ASK THIS | May 24, 2008

Serious regulators are needed, not lobbyists or industry executives like those Bush appointed. Morton Mintz cites coal mine safety as a case in point.

By Morton Mintz

Who should lead the regulatory agencies charged with preventing needless injury, sickness and death and protecting the environment? Former executives, lobbyists and shills whose paymasters had been the very industries they would regulate, and who had worked to undermine the very laws and regulations that upon taking office they would solemnly swear to enforce? Upwardly mobile bureaucrats who can be counted upon to heed not the scientists in their agencies but the political scientists in the White House?

For nearly eight years now, President Bush's answer to both questions has been, Yes. This record suggests questions that reporters should ask of the man Bush would have succeed him and of the Democrat who will oppose him as well. But let's look first at the example of the regulated coal-mining industry and the man from that industry Bush chose to regulate it.

On Sept. 23, 2001, eight months after the start of the George W. Bush presidency, 13 miners were killed in the country's deepest coal mine. [Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that 32 miners were killed.] The fall of a piece of ceiling had led to the igniting of a pocket of methane gas in the No. 5 mine of Jim Walter Resources Inc. in Brookwood, Alabama. This was a reminder, if any were needed, of the stakes for human life when a president has an opportunity to choose the Assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Bush's opportunity came in September 2005. In that year, the fines collected by the MSHA averaged $115 for each of more than 200 safety violations, many of them serious. In fiscal 2006, the White House eliminated 170 jobs at the agency and proposed cutting its budget by nearly $5 million.

Bush's nominee was Richard E. Stickler. Articles by reporter Ken Ward, Jr., in the Charleston [West Virginia] Gazette and in the March 2007 Washington Monthly were major sources for what follows.

Stickler had spent about 30 years working for coal companies, mainly as a mine manager for BethEnergy, Bethlehem Steel's coal arm. During the 1980s and 1990s three workers died at BethEnergy mines he managed. In the worst incident, a mechanic was killed, and eight other workers were injured by the derailment of the portal bus carrying them to the mine-shaft bottom. A subsequent report said the bus had not been properly maintained.

Bush's choice of Stickler, and his subsequent fierce loyalty to him, were no surprise. The coal-mining industry's campaign contributions in the four two-year election cycles starting in 2000 total $14,091,044, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Republican candidates and organizations got $12,064,855—nearly 86 percent of the total. In three cycles the GOP share was even higher: 88 percent in 2000, 89 percent in 2002, and 90 percent in 2004.

The United Mine Workers of America and the AFL-CIO opposed Stickler's confirmation, Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va.) placed a hold on it, and, Ward wrote, "the Senate twice sent the nomination back to the White House without a vote. Then, with the Senate out of session in October 2006, Bush went around lawmakers to put Stickler into the MSHA post through a recess appointment." The appointment was set to expire at the end of 2007. Before it did, Bush renominated Stickler,

Byrd placed another hold, and Ted Kennedy, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, refused to schedule a vote on the renomination. Stickler's term as Assistant Secretary expired last Dec. 31, and agency staffer John Pallasch was named to replace him, on an acting basis.

On Jan. 2, 2006, an explosion killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine, in West Virginia's worst mine disaster in nearly 40 years. Seventeen days later, two more West Virginia miners were killed after a conveyor belt caught fire in the Aracoma Alma Mine No. 1.

On May 22, 2006, five miners were killed by an explosion in Kentucky's Darby Mine No. 1.

On Aug. 6, 2007, in a collapse that registered 3.9 on the Richter scale, roof supports gave way in the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah, permanently entombing six miners. Ten days later, more tunnels fell, killing three miner-rescuers.

The House Committee on Education and Labor quickly launched an investigation. In a 150-page report on May 8, the committee said that the mine's general manager and possibly other senior staffers "hid information from federal mining officials that could have prevented the disaster," the New York Times reported.

A subsequent Times editorial said:

A detailed House investigation has concluded that high-risk mining techniques – and a clear intent to conceal problems – was at the heart of the Utah disaster. The finding is a red alert for miners' safety, as the coal industry once again booms under the questionable watch of a regulatory bureaucracy bristling with the Bush administration's pro-industry appointees.

No one could prove that the coal-mine disasters that occurred on Stickler's watch would not have occurred had the leader of the MSHA been truly dedicated to the agency's mission of protecting the lives, safety and health of miners. But such a leader certainly would have improved the odds against those disasters. He would have fought back, maybe threatened to resign, when the White House proposed cutting the agency's fiscal 2006 budget by nearly $5 million and eliminating 170 jobs. He would have given mine operators incentives to adopt and follow safe practices, not allow them instead, as Ken Ward wrote in January, "to avoid fines for thousands of health and safety citations, despite a federal law that requires monetary penalties for such violations." And for the more than 200 safety violations in 2005 the average fine would not have been a flea-bite $115.

Here are questions for the presidential candidates:

Q. Was the Bush pattern of regulatory appointments designed to implement the letter and spirit of the laws? Or was it intended to protect and pay back the industries and campaign contributors that sought to block and weaken those laws?

Q. Is the Bush pattern faithful to the oath he took, and you would take, to "faithfully execute the office of President of the United States"?

Q. Will you pledge that as president, you would appoint as regulators only those men and women who have a demonstrated commitment to the life-protecting missions of their agencies as defined by law?

Q. Will you further pledge to fight for the money, the resources, and the Justice Department support that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Food Safety and Inspection Service of the Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Mine Safety Administration need to carry out their missions?

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