By John McCabe
September 4, 2017 - The list of jobs David Zatezalo has held over a 40-year career as a coal miner and coal mining executive is extensive: he’s been a laborer for the United Mine Workers of America; a mine foreman; a general mine superintendent; a general manager; president of a coal mining company; head of state mining advocacy groups; CEO of a coal company.
Now, he’s hoping to take that experience as a “working coal man” with him to Washington to lead the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
On Saturday, President Donald Trump nominated Zatezalo, a Wheeling, West Virginia resident, to serve as assistant secretary of labor for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Zatezalo, 62, needs Senate confirmation to assume his new post, a step he believes could be on the calendar in the coming weeks. If confirmed, he will take over an agency tasked with regulating and enforcing health and safety issues for the nation’s coal mining sector.
During an interview Sunday afternoon at his home, Zatezalo discussed his career, his thoughts on Washington, the direction he would like to see MSHA head and the process by which he was nominated to lead the federal agency.
He and his wife, Jo Lynn, were high school sweethearts at Weir High School, and one of his cousins is current W.Va. Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock.
Following high school he entered the coal mines as a union laborer. He earned a mining engineering degree from West Virginia University in 1977, and later earned an MBA from Ohio University in Athens.
After leaving the ranks as a union miner, he became a mine foreman and subsequently general superintendent for Southern Ohio Coal Co. He then went to Australia, where he worked for Broken Hill Proprietary as a general mine manager.
It was in 1998 that he received an opportunity to return to the United States, taking the post of general manager of the former Windsor Coal Co. in Beech Bottom during the operation’s phase down stage. He moved his family to Wheeling at that time, and they’ve remained here since.
After Windsor Coal closed, Zatezalo served as vice president of operations of American Electric Power’s Appalachian mining operations, a job that took him throughout eastern Kentucky while his wife and three children remained at their Woodsdale home. He then took a position as president of Hopedale Mining to develop a new mine near Cadiz, Ohio, before returning to Kentucky to head the Lexington-based Rhino Resources until his retirement in 2014.
It was earlier this year that a number of his industry contacts reached out to him, urging him to come out of retirement and apply for the MSHA post. Among them was Murray Energy Chairman, President and CEO Robert Murray, Zatezalo said.
“There aren’t a lot of people in the industry I don’t know, and people said, ‘You’d be great for that position. I’m going to call Sen. (Mitch) McConnell and tell him he needs to support you for this,'” Zatezalo, who also served as a former chairman of the Ohio Coal Association and the Kentucky Coal Association, said. “I am pretty excited because I think for the first time we have a president who is more in tune with working America rather than being lofty and esoteric in what he wants to do. I feel good about that and I feel there’s some things I can do.”
Zatezalo said he does not know and has yet to meet President Trump. During trips to Washington over the past several weeks, he met with Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta and other officials concerning the post, and also had interviews with staff from the Office of Presidential Personnel.
Zatezalo considers himself a working man, and said he believes Washington needs more people like him who are there to get things done, instead of falling into what he sees as the “bureaucratic trap.”
He believes that type of attitude prevailed during the Obama administration, and he often found himself at odds with the administration over its mine safety policies.
“The policies were wrong,” he said. “I think there were too many elitists in the government who really just had no connection to working America. … I still think of the world as being one that if you can provide opportunities for people, they’ll do well. If you don’t provide opportunities, they won’t.”
He said in his opinion, the Obama administration didn’t set out to destroy coal through “willful persecution,” but instead chose to “ignore it in the hopes that it would just go away.”
That’s already changing under President Trump, he said. If he were to lead MSHA, Zatezalo said his work in Washington would be a natural extension of his former work in running a coal company. When he ran Rhino Resources, he said, he started each day reviewing the previous day’s safety reports, and noted just about every coal executive he’s ever met puts the health and safety of miners first.
What he doesn’t know in this possible new role is just how much leeway he will have in reshaping MSHA to actually serve what he sees as the health and safety needs of coal miners.
“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. “Generally there are a lot of good mine inspectors in MSHA, and there are a lot of good technical people in MSHA, and there are some that are not as much, but that is true in any organization that you run into.
“What I don’t know is what are the rules for streamlining it, making (MSHA) more efficient? It needs to be less about the bureaucracy and more about boots on the ground for health and safety. That’s where the rubber meets the road.”
Zatezalo expressed a growing concern for the state of the coal industry.
“Right now it’s very transitional … as to whether it will continue to have markets in the future, and it’s very transitional as far as being able to keep a solid workforce that we can keep developing,” he said. “There are a lot of younger people that are not too turned on by what they hear about the mining industry and its future. … It’s going to be difficult to attract and keep some of the brightest minds. That in turn poses health and safety issues of its own.”
He also said MSHA needs to intensify its focus on mine safety technology. “The last couple things we’ve done have come from other countries, and I think we need to be the best out there. I think in a lot of ways MSHA has not emphasized the technology front as a way to cure health and safety issues,” he said.
Zatezalo said he’s eager to get to work on overseeing the country’s mine safety sector, as he has plenty left to offer the industry and the nation. “As I look around, things have just sort of worked out for me. I’ve always tried to do things that are interesting and tried to do them well, and I’ve tried to learn from everyone I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “I look forward to learning new roles in this new job.”