Rural Blog: Former coal executive Zatezalo nominated to head federal mine safety agency

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President Trump’s pick to head the federal mine-safety agency is David Zatezalo, who “repeatedly clashed with federal regulators when the Obama administration Labor Department tried to step up industry-wide enforcement in the wake of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in a generation,” Ken Ward Jr. reports for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The White House announced a long list of appointments Friday night that included Zatezalo to be assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, subject to Senate confirmation, which would make him the boss of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

It said Zatezalo retired in 2014 as chairman of Rhino Resources, where he had been president, CEO and chief operating officer.

In 2010 and 2011, “The company had a series of run-ins with MSHA over safety and health conditions at mines in West Virginia and Kentucky” when the Obama administration was strengthening enforcement following 29 deaths at a West Virginia mine. MSHA accused Rhino of a pattern of violations, “a long-unused MSHA tool for cracking down on repeat violators of safety and health standards,” Ward notes.

“Rhino improved and MSHA backed off, but the company’s safety performance quickly deteriorated again, prompting a second pattern of violations letter.”

Meanwhile, MSHA blamed a death at a Rhino mine in Kentucky on the company’s inadequate efforts to control mine walls, and it paid $44,500 in fines.

Earlier in 2011, at another Rhino mine in Kentucky, “MSHA had taken the unusual action of seeking a federal court injunction against the company when it discovered mine employees giving advance notice of an agency inspection to miners working underground,” Ward writes.

A judge granted a restraining order.

United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said through a spokesman, “It is my hope that Mr. Zatezalo will take the tough stance on enforcement that is needed to reign in the rising level of serious injuries and fatalities. We look forward to meeting with him and sharing ideas on how to best protect the nation’s miners and reduce the number of fatalities,” which have been rising.

The White House release said, “Zatezalo began his mining career in 1974 with Consolidation Coal Co. [now Consol Energy] as a UMWA laborer, became a foreman and subsequently general superintendent for Southern Ohio Coal Co. and General Manager of American Electric Power’s Windsor Coal Co. He later rose to be vice-president of operations of AEP’s Appalachian mining operations. Mr. Zatezalo also worked in Australia for Broken Hill Proprietary, Ltd. as a general mine manager. Mr. Zatezalo is a mining engineering graduate from West Virginia University.”

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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