Utah mine safety chief faces more scrutiny | PostIndependent.com

Utah mine safety chief faces more scrutiny

Associated Press Writer
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

WASHINGTON (AP) ” As hopes for a rescue dim at Utah’s collapsed Crandall Canyon Mine, critics looking for someone to blame are focusing on the stern-faced director of the government agency that oversees coal mine safety.

Members of Congress, union officials and worker advocates were skeptical before the Aug. 6 accident that Richard Stickler was dedicated enough to worker safety.

The former mine executive faced so much opposition when he was appointed to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration, President Bush had to bypass critics and install him during a congressional recess last October.

Now all three groups are pointing out mistakes they say Stickler has made in handling attempts to rescue six trapped miners. The situation grew more grim last week when three rescue workers were killed in a subsequent cave-in.

Stickler’s career at MSHA will be defined by the Crandall Canyon accident and his next big decision: Whether to call off the rescue effort and entomb the six missing miners forever.

“I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes,” said Davitt McAteer, who headed MSHA during the Clinton administration and now is vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia.

Critics think any investigation of the accident will ultimately ask why MSHA signed off in June on a mining plan for the area where the collapse occurred.

Experts have said the terrain there was already risky for the type of mining the operators wanted to do. Concerns about the roof’s stability after a cave-in damaged another part of the mine in March made MSHA’s approval even more questionable, they say.

Stickler probably never saw the Crandall Canyon mining plan, critics say.

But the mine workers union and others say Stickler has failed to change the climate at MSHA from one of “really coddling mine operators,” said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, which opposed Stickler’s appointment and is calling for an independent investigation of the accident.

“What we’re not seeing is a change in culture,” Smith said. “I think the Crandall Canyon incident reflects that.”

MSHA officials in Washington did not respond to several requests for comment. Spokeswoman Amy Louviere has said the agency will thoroughly investigate the accident ” including MSHA’s possible role ” when the rescue is complete.

Stickler grew up in West Virginia and worked for Beth Energy Mines Inc. for 30 years as a shift foreman, superintendent and mine manager. From 1997 to 2003, he served as director of Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety, overseeing the agency when the Quecreek mine flooded and almost killed nine coal miners. He was praised for his work on the 2002 rescue but criticized by some who thought his agency could have prevented the accident.

Bush nominated Stickler to head MSHA in 2005, but his confirmation was blocked by Democrats, who feared a mine executive would be too accommodating of the industry.

They questioned the safety record of the mines he ran, saying incident rates doubled the national average in six of eight years. One mine had two fatal accidents in five years.

Stickler’s defenders said the incident numbers were high because he was strict about following the rules. Stickler himself said he had witnessed tragic mine accidents that left him dedicated to safety.

“I think my track record in Pennsylvania proves that I did not go easy on mine operators,” Stickler said at the time he was appointed to head the agency. Still, his appointment became even more controversial after West Virginia’s Sago

Mine explosion in January 2006, one of three high-profile accidents that helped make 2006 the deadliest year for coal mining in more than a decade.

Twelve miners died at Sago, and a total of 47 coal miners perished in 2006. Their deaths inspired a flurry of new laws and prompted Congress to push for a tough enforcer to head MSHA.

Bush eventually got his way, however, by doing an end run around Congress and installing Stickler during its October break. Because he was appointed without the consent of the Senate, Stickler’s term expires at the end of this congressional session unless the Senate confirms him in the meantime.

To many worker advocates’ surprise, they found Stickler hasn’t been nearly as easy on mine companies as many expected him to be.

Stickler also won praise after he made public an embarrassing internal review done after Sago and two other accidents last year. The reports uncovered several examples of “questionable conduct,” including instances in which MSHA inspectors missed obvious problems.

“I think Mr. Stickler is about as good an assistant secretary we can expect from the Bush administration,” said Tony Oppegard, a former top federal and state of Kentucky mine safety official who now represents miners as a private attorney in Lexington, Ky.

Still, Oppegard and others have criticized Stickler’s public performance and his decision-making at Crandall Canyon.

In the early days of the rescue, the bespectacled Stickler was regularly upstaged during news conferences by the mine’s blustery co-owner, Bob Murray, who used press conferences to rail against his critics and insist that an earthquake ” not a structural failure ” caused his mine to collapse.

Critics say Murray has a reputation as a bully in the industry and he has openly criticized MSHA’s inspectors. Murray’s dominance led many observers to wonder whether Stickler was able ” or willing ” to control the scene.

When the mine collapsed again last week, Murray disappeared from view almost entirely for a few days, leaving in the spotlight the reserved Stickler, whose monotone drawl was a dramatic change from Murray’s staccato outbursts.

Critics, however, have second-guessed several of their moves, including the decision to allow even rescue workers in the volatile mine.

One is Jack Spadaro, a former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy who has advised the miners’ union and attorneys representing injured miners.

“The people who were mining to try to recover the six trapped miners were put at enormous unnecessary risk,” Spadaro said. “That resulted in their deaths.”

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