By Ken Ward, Jr.
September 6, 2017 - David Zatezalo, the Trump administration’s pick to serve as the nation’s top mine safety and health regulator, confirmed on Tuesday that Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, the outspoken and controversial owner of West Virginia’s largest coal producer, was among those in the industry who urged him to seek out the post.
“He was one of the people whose opinion I value and who I talked to about it after the idea came up,” Zatezalo said in a phone interview.
Zatezalo said that a number of coal industry contacts, including Murray, reached out to him, urging him to come out of retirement and apply for the post as assistant Secretary of Labor in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Some of Zatezalo’s comments were first published on Monday in an interview in his hometown newspaper, The Intelligencer-Wheeling News Register.
“I am quite pleased and happy that President Trump has chosen to forward my name on and advance me,” Zatezalo said Tuesday. “I’m quite pleased, and I did seek it out and I look forward to being able to represent the health and safety interests of what I see as one of America’s great workforces.”
In the Wheeling paper’s interview, Zatezalo indicated that some industry officials had told him they planned to call Senate Majority Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., but Zatezalo said on Tuesday he wasn’t sure that Murray actually made any calls or did any other lobbying on his behalf.
“[Murray] said if I was interested in it, I should go after it,” Zatezalo said. “I don’t know if he ever forwarded my name to anybody. I don’t really know him all that well. There’s scarcely anybody in the valley here who doesn’t know Bob Murray. But I don’t know him all that well.”
A spokesman for Murray declined to comment on the nomination or Zatezalo’s statements. Zatezalo declined to name any other industry officials who had encouraged him to seek the MSHA post.
Also, Zatezalo refused to discuss in any detail the history of safety problems at Rhino Resources while he held major management positions, including CEO, at that company.
“I won’t speak to it except to say that any problems that existed at Rhino were properly addressed,” Zatezalo said.
In 2010 and 2011, while Zatezalo was a top Rhino executive, the company had a series of run-ins with MSHA over safety and health conditions at mines in West Virginia and Kentucky, during a period when then-MSHA chief Joe Main was ramping up agency enforcement following the deaths of 29 miners at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in April 2010.
One of Rhino’s mines received back-to-back warning letters from MSHA about a “pattern of violations” at the operation and another Rhino mine was targeted by a rare MSHA lawsuit after agency staffers said they caught officials there providing advance notice of an MSHA inspection to workers underground.
Under the Trump administration, MSHA is in the process of settling a lawsuit brought by Murray Energy over an Obama initiative that would tighten the agency’s “pattern of violations” regulations by, among other things, eliminating the warning letter step to speed up the process of enhanced enforcement for mines with repeated violations of federal safety and health rules. Bob Murray was among the most outspoken opponents of various Obama administration regulatory efforts and has been a vocal supporter of Trump. Murray Energy owned the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, where a series of collapses in August 2007 killed six miners and three rescue workers.
The White House announced Zatezalo’s nomination on Saturday, putting his name last on an alphabetic list of several dozen administration appointments released during the three-day Labor Day weekend.
Zatezalo, 62, lives in Wheeling now, but grew up in Weirton and is a cousin of Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, who is the House Energy Committee’s vice chairman for coal issues. Zatezalo earned a degree in mining engineering from West Virginia University and completed the masters of business administration at Ohio University. He began his mining career in 1974 with Consolidation Coal as a laborer and United Mine Workers union member, and once he moved into management later became a top official at the former coal holdings of American Electric Power.
Zatezalo told the Wheeling paper that he had yet to meet President Trump. He also told the paper that the MSHA position would be a natural extension of his former work running a coal company. He told the paper that when he ran Rhino Resources he started each day reviewing the previous day’s safety reports.
“I think inspections should be consistent around the country,” Zatezalo said Tuesday.
Zatezalo told the Wheeling paper that he doesn’t know how much leeway he will have in reshaping how MSHA works.
“What I don’t know is what are the rules for streamlining it, making [MSHA] more efficient?” Zatezalo told the Wheeling paper. “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.”