By Ken Ward, Jr.
October 4, 2017 - A longtime coal industry executive tapped by President Donald Trump to run the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration faced questions Wednesday about black lung disease, former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, and his own safety and health record.
Members of a Senate committee pressed David Zatezalo, a former chief executive of Rhino Resources, about the frightening epidemic of serious black lung disease among coal miners in Appalachia.
Zatezalo offered no clear plan for how he would tackle the crisis, except to say he hopes an ongoing National Academy of Sciences study provides some recommendations on better sampling techniques for exposure to silica dust that is believed to be a major factor in the resurgence of the lung disease.
“The increase [in black lung] that’s been discussed is certainly unacceptable,” Zatezalo told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
But, he said, “It’s something that until it’s explained more fully, I can’t elaborate on what we would have to do. But we would have to start by taking some engineering-type controls.”
Zatezalo did not mention the fact that the Labor Department has not specifically moved to improve rules on silica exposures in mining, or that the agency has sought to delay enforcement of new silica rules for other industries.
Trump has nominated Zatezalo to serve as assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, a position that would put him in charge of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Zatezalo, 62, of Wheeling, 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.
During a confirmation hearing Wednesday afternoon, Zatezalo faced somewhat limited questioning from lawmakers. The hearing was also on the confirmations of Trump nominees to run the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division and to serve as general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board. The hearing was also scheduled on what Democrats complained turned into an especially busy day, with other hearings and a floor vote that briefly interrupted the questioning of the nominees.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked Zatezalo to explain what happened at Rhino Resources in 2010 and 2011, when the company twice received letters warning that MSHA planned to step up enforcement at one of its West Virginia mines because of a “pattern of violations.”
Zatezalo said that he replaced the management of that particular unit of Rhino, blaming the local management for “not doing what they should have been doing.”
“I did not try to lawyer up and stop anything from happening,” Zatezalo said of the MSHA warning process. “I felt like if you haven’t done your job then we should be big kids and deal with it as such.”
Kaine also asked Zatezalo if he would give into the public relations push from former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship that MSHA should reopen its investigation of the April 2010 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine.
“Absent any new evidence, I don’t see any reason why it should be reopened,” Zatezalo said.
Blankenship actually argues that there is evidence about the Upper Big Branch disaster that hasn’t really come out publicly, because of a massive cover up by Democratic officials, MSHA and the media. The Trump Department of Justice, though, stuck with the legal positions previously taken by federal prosecutors and urged the U.S. Supreme Court not to take up an appeal of Blankenship’s conviction for conspiring to violate federal safety and health standards at Upper Big Branch.
Questioned by Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., Zatezalo rejected the suggestion that a decline in enforcement since Trump took office could have played any role in this year’s increase in coal-mining deaths. Again, though, Zatezalo said he needed more information before he could say too much.
“I do not believe that the fatalities that we have had to date have been due to a lack of enforcement,” Zatezalo said. “But I don’t have all the details on that. All I have is a little one-page summary, so it’s probably inappropriate for me to comment on that.”
Zatezalo added that he believes this year’s 13 coal-mining deaths, an increase over eight in all of 2016, are “separate, isolated incidents.” But he said several times he does not think MSHA should back off enforcement of federal standards.
“Inspections in the mines in the United States are a necessity,” Zatezalo said. “They have to continue and I don’t think they should continue at a diminished rate.”