SIXTEEN West Virginia miners died during the first 33 days of this year. If any cause deserves serious attention from the federal government, you’d think that coal mine safety would be it.Yet President Bush has nominated a longtime coal executive with a poor safety record to head the federal agency responsible for keeping miners safe. Richard Stickler was this administration’s nominee well before 12 West Virginia miners died after the Sago explosion in Upshur County.Despite widespread belief that more communication equipment and better safety enforcement might have saved at least 11 of those men, Stickler told U.S. senators that current mine safety laws are “adequate.” A day later, two more miners died in separate incidents in Boone County. Yet Stickler remains the administration’s pick.Bush’s last head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration was Dave Lauriski, another career coal company official.Lauriski, at least, had a safety background, although in company circles that often means trying to protect the company from safety fines more than protecting miners from harm. Under his watch, the federal government relaxed rules and made mines more dangerous.
Stickler doesn’t even have Lauriski’s qualifications. Stickler, originally from Marion County, worked for BethEnergy Mines of Pennsylvania for 30 years, worked briefly for Massey and then headed Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Deep Mine Safety from 1997 to 2003, when he retired. Stickler’s mines had accident rates twice the national average.The United Mine Workers opposes Stickler’s nomination. So does the AFL-CIO.“His only experience with public enforcement of health and safety standards was marked by repeated attempts to limit regulations and reduce health and safety for miners in Pennsylvania,” wrote AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.(Incidentally, the president is just as indifferent to safety for the rest of the nation’s workers. His nominee to head the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is Edwin Foulke, a lawyer who spent his career helping companies fend off safety penalties.)Public opinion is sympathetic to miners and their families. Condolence letters still pour into West Virginia. After the tragic rescue attempt of the Sago tragedy, many Americans thought twice about the source of electric power when they flipped a light switch or a TV remote control. The public wants safe mines.President Bush’s administration is out of step with the rest of the country. He should find a qualified MSHA nominee to send before the U.S. Senate.