On a party-line vote, the U.S. Senate on Wednesday confirmed longtime coal company executive David Zatezalo to be assistant secretary of Labor in charge of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Senators voted 52-46 in favor of President Donald Trump’s nominee to run the Labor Department agency that’s in charge of enforcing the federal laws intended to protect the health and safety of the nation’s coal and other miners.
All 52 Senate Republicans voted to confirm Zatezalo. Forty-four Democrats and two independents voted against confirmation. Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., did not vote.
Zatezalo, 62, of Wheeling, is a former top executive of Rhino Resources, a coal company that clashed repeatedly with MSHA as the Obama administration tried to toughen safety and health enforcement in the nation’s mines following the deaths of 29 miners in an April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, in Raleigh County.
Among other things, Rhino, under Zatezalo’s leadership, was twice warned by MSHA that one of its mines was a scofflaw and faced a rare federal court lawsuit from regulators when another mine allegedly tipped off workers underground about an impending inspection.
“David Zatezalo is a mining industry executive who has made it clear that he cares more about corporate profits than workers,” said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, who is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. “Instead of nominating an advocate for workers’ health and safety, President Trump nominated one of the industry’s worst offenders.”
HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said that Zatezalo is “uniquely qualified” for the MSHA post “because he knows the industry inside-out.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that Zatezalo spent “a lifetime working in the mining industry” and that he “knows about various levels of the business, which would be an important asset as he works with operators, miners and inspectors to ensure that mining operations are safe for our nation’s mine workers.”
Zatezalo is a mining engineer who started his career as a laborer for Consolidation Coal Co. He moved into management, running the coal operations of American Electric Power and then rising to the top of Rhino Resources.
He will take over MSHA at a time when coal-mining deaths are on the rise again, after years of reductions. So far in 2017, there have been 14 coal-mining deaths nationwide, compared to eight the prior year, according to MSHA.
Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., voted to confirm Zatezalo and said his comments during his confirmation hearing “made clear that he will continue to rigorously enforce our mine safety laws and will work to expedite the deployment of new technologies that will help make our mines safer.”
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., voted against Zatezalo’s confirmation, saying that, after looking at his “qualifications and record of safety during his time in the coal industry,” he is “not convinced Zatezalo is suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards.”