Posted with permission from Confined Space, a newsletter of workplace safety and labor issues.
Now there’s been a lot of outrage and alarm that Trump would appoint a coal company executive to head MSHA. But what did you expect? There are basically four types of people that you would expect to head MSHA:
- A worker-oriented mine safety advocate (Someone like Joe Main who headed the agency in the Obama administration)
- A mine safety professional. (Sort of like Bush’s first OSHA head, John Henshaw.)
- A campaign contributor or ideologue who knows very little about mining or mine safety, but just wants to undermine the agency’s mission. (See EPA administrator Scott Pruitt)
- A mine company executive who knows the industry, and possibly something about safety.
It’s clearly unlikely that Trump (or any Republican administration) would choose another Joe Main. A safety professional might have been nice. But we should be somewhat happy we don’t seem have an ideologue.
I don’t have a whole lot of knowledge of the mining industry, so when in doubt, I turn to Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette-Mail. Ward’s article on Zatezelo’s appointment notes that “In 2010 and 2011, Zatezalo was a top executive with Rhino when the company had a series of run-ins with MSHA over safety and health conditions at mines in West Virginia and Kentucky during a period when then-MSHA chief Joe Main was ramping up agency enforcement following the Upper Branch disaster.”
MSHA had sent Rhino a “Pattern of Violations” letter due to numerous violations identified by MSHA. Conditions improved, but MSHA was forced to send a second letter when safety conditions began deteriorating again.
The Wheeling Intellegencer conducted an interview with Zatezalo. He’s styling himself as a “working coal man” — ”
Eat s---, Bob
But he also has the strong support of some unsavory characters, namely Bob Murray:
Murray, you may remember, owned the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah where six trapped miners died in 2007. Murray has always blamed the collapse on an earthquake, which even George Bush’s MSHA denied. Murray has come into the news again recently when he sued comedian John Oliver who did a hilarious piece on Murray on Last Week Tonight after Murray Energy sent a cease and desist order to the show.
And Zatezalo wasn’t crazy about the Obama administration, according to the Intellegencer:
Not sure if he considers former Obama MSHA head (and coal miner) Joe Main an “elitist.”
But Zatezalo should get along well with his new boss in the White House, who, like him, hasn’t had any government experience: “I think it’s going to be difficult in that I’m in the position that I don’t know what I don’t know because I’ve never worked in government. I’m not sure of all the rules and restrictions,” he said.
Hopefully he’ll learn faster than his boss.
So What Will He Do?
If confirmed by the Senate, Zatezalo takes the helm of MSHA at a critical time. As Ward describes:
So how will he meet that challenge? Inspections are mandated by law, but whether MSHA will continue with the tough penalties for mine companies that endanger workers remains to be seen. MSHA also had an aggressive regulatory agenda, going after the scourge of black lung, which is spiking in much of Appalachia, and working on a silica standard.
As Celeste Monforton, an occupational health expert and former MSHA employee, sounded somewhat hopeful in an interview with the Huffington Post;
Meanwhile, still no word on who Trump will choose to head OSHA.
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