Entry for October 20, 2006

The cartoon is by Bill “Whitey” Sanders  from when he worked at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal. (email, blog, bio and 2005 Western Kentucky University exhibit of his work.  I’m not sure the date the cartoon first appeared, but will update this entry, if Sanders can help me out .)

Yesterday, in utter contempt for public sentiment and Congress, President Bush made a recess apppointment of Richard Stickler to head of Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSAH), after the Senate twice had refused to confirm the nomination. Under the recess appointment, Stickler likely will remain in this post without Senate approval until the end of 2007.

Bush’s prior  appointee,  Dave D. Lauriski,  had spent his entire career working for coal companies and in one of his first acts in office ordered Jack Spadaro to sign onto an investigation of the coal sludge spill in Martin County, Kentucky, which Jack thougtht of as a whitewash.  After being locked out of his office and fighting a transfer  for some time, Jack finally retired.

Lauriski departed shortly after Bush won re-election, citing family reasons, but, as Scott Lillly (bio and article archive) . a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress noted in his piece, “Feds’ cronyism ignores interests of Americans”  in the Charleston Gazette on January 13, 2006:

His resignation came shortly after a Labor Department Inspector General report confirmed CBS’ “60 Minutes” allegations that his agency had improperly awarded no-bid, single-source contracts. Two of the contract winners had ties to Lauriski and one of his assistants.

But Lauriski is best remembered at MSHA for his attempt to push through a change in coal-dust rules that he had lobbied for as a senior executive with Energy West Mining Co. of Utah. Since the change uniquely benefited only his former employer, it was opposed by not only the United Mine Workers but also by mine operators other than Energy West.

Meanwhile, Lauriski sided with the mine operators on a host of other regulatory changes detrimental to worker safety. According to The New York Times, MSHA under his direction “rescinded more than a half-dozen proposals intended to make coal miners’ jobs safer, including steps to limit miners’ exposure to toxic chemicals. One rule pushed by the agency would make it easier for companies to use diesel generators underground, which miners say could increase the risk of fire.”

David G. Dye has filled the position in the interim and angered Senators by leaving without their permission while they were conducting an investigation into the Sago mine disaster. (See “Asst. Labor Secretary Dye Walks Out of Mine Safety Hearing As West Virgnia Mine Deaths Reach 14” by Amy Goodman in the January 24, 2006 broadcast of Democracy Now, as well as “Contempt for Congress,” by  Ruth Marcus in the January 25, 2006 Washington Post.)

I will be interested to learn what happens regarding Stickler’s appointment when Congress reconvenes after the election, given Senator Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) June 13, 2006  promise to Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA) on the Senate floor that if Bush planned a recess appointment of Stickler, Republicans would schedule a Senate vote on the nomination first. (Congressional Record, page S 746

Mr. KENNEDY. …I thought we talked with the leader about a process and a procedure, of which the leader was agreeable, that we would have a chance–if there is going to be a recess appointment–that we would have an opportunity to go ahead and have a cloture vote prior to that time.

   Mr. FRIST. Mr. President, the discussion among the Democratic leadership and Republican leadership was, indeed, that we vitiate the vote today and that at a time that is mutually agreed upon this vote will come back to this body.

   Mr. KENNEDY. To this body prior to the recess appointment?

   Mr. FRIST. Prior. That is the understanding. And the discussion was–I have had absolutely no conversations with the administration about a recess appointment—-

   Mr. KENNEDY. Right.

   Mr. FRIST. But if there were to be such a recess appointment, that then this vote could come back, would come back at that time.

 Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao noted in her news release of October 18, 2006, that Stickler

was one of the architects of the dramatic rescue of nine miners at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania in 2002 when he served as a planner and decision-maker at the mine site command center during the entire rescue operation.

At Quecreek, an accidental breach of  an adjacent abandoned mine full of water trapped miners, who survived underground for more than three days in July of 2002.  At Sago, miners’ families hoped for a similar “miracle.”  

In his Charleston Gazette story today, “Bush names Stickler mine chief,” staff writer Ken Ward Jr. writes about the July 22, 2003 investigation report of the Pensylvannia Department of Environmental Protection:  

at least one state inspector involved in Quecreek said Stickler had not clearly explained to his staff the rules for properly identifying the location of abandoned workings near new mining permits.

In a report, the Pennsylvania Inspector General found that Stickler’s agency “inconsistently” applied these rules numerous times before Quecreek. Two state inspectors who dealt with the Quecreek permits told the Inspector General that they did not properly apply the rule to the Quecreek Mine. If they had, the rule would have required a more accurate map showing the nearby abandoned mines, or forced the company to conduct tests to determine their location, according to the IG report.

Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) has lammented the appointment.

The sad reality of the Bush administration’s actions is that the person who will now lead MSHA lacks the trust of the miners he’s charged to protect and has a skewed view of what the safety priorities should be.

We need a bulldog agency that will place miner safety over all other priorities, and not an agency that will continue to place a higher priority on mine production than on miner protection.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) complained,

The administration knows that Mr. Stickler could not pass the Senate because of his poor safety record, but they chose to put the interests of the industry ahead of the safety of the miners and installed him in the job anyway.

Senator Jay Rockefeller, (D-WV) also criticized Stickler:

The mines he ran when he was in the industry were some of the most dangerous and the most frequently cited for safety violations in the entire industry.  In fact, despite broad bipartisan support for new, more aggressive mine safety laws, Richard Stickler said in his Senate nomination hearing that no new laws were necessary.

I’ve cited Jordan Barab, author of the blog, Confined Spaces, before on mining issues. Jorday served as Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in a political appointment, which meant that “turned into a pumpkin at noon, January 20, 2001.” 

Jordan posted a long entry yesterday, well worth reading, “Bush Appoints Stickler To Head MSHA. Expected To Do A Heck Of A Job.”  He starts,

Yet another in a long line of unqualified industry foxes has been appointed to guard this country’s henhouses. And miners will pay the price.

Interestingly, mine safety expert Sandy Krumholtz, thinks Stickler would not be a bad choice, if her were left to his own devices,  However, as she told Jordan as reported in his September 20, 2006 entry, “MSHA Nominee Richard Stickler: Chao’s Puppet?” .

What upsets me about Stickler is that I do not think he is the man to stand up to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, should there be differences on how the laws are enforced. The “Stickler” I saw in the Senate hearing is not the “Stickler” that I’ve seen in the past. At the Senate hearing, I saw a man who appeared to be an Elaine Chao mouthpiece (albeit not as nasty or conniving as Chao is), versus a man who was speaking his own convictions. He was obviously torn between what he wanted to say, versus what he was told say….
 I do not think Elaine Chao will leave anyone alone to do what they do best, and she would certainly meddle on behalf of the coal industry, making Stickler into the puppet that we saw at the hearing.

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