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Trump's MSHA pick: Like police on highway, inspectors needed at nation's mines

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Trump's MSHA pick: Like police on highway, inspectors needed at nation's mines

A former coal executive expected to take the reins of the agency in charge of his fellow coal miners said consistent enforcement and technology will be at the forefront of his agenda at a U.S. Senate confirmation hearing Oct. 4.

David Zatezalo, a former Rhino Resource Partners LP CEO, told the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions that he would use his 41 years of experience in the mining industry to advance mine health and safety. President Donald Trump selected him to lead the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in early September, filling a position left vacant by former President Barack Obama's appointee, Joseph Main.

Prior to the hearing, some in Congress expressed concern that Rhino's safety record would preclude their support for Zatezalo's nomination. When asked about one of his mines receiving a relatively rare notice from MSHA that its operations had been identified as a pattern violator, Zatezalo said he admits management at that operation were "not doing what they should have been doing."

"I was not proud of the fact that we got designated as a POV mine. I did not try to lawyer up to stop anything from happening," Zatezalo said at the hearing. "I thought that if you haven't done your job, we should be big kids and deal with it as such. I replaced that management because I was not too happy with their performance and I had not been happy with them for some time."

He added he would similarly not expect to reduce any enforcement of dust regulations aimed to reduce black lung or to reduce coal mine inspections.

"Just as I wouldn't want to drive on the highways without police and constables to take control of speeders and drunk drivers, inspections of 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 either."

Ranking member Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was worried that the Trump administration was putting the "fox in the henhouse," based on Zatezalo's history, which includes multiple safety violations and run-ins with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Offering a more supportive voice on the committee, Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn. focused on Zatezalo's years of experience as both a union coal miner and a coal mine executive.

"The mining industry in the United States today is safer and healthier than at any time in our nation's history," Zatezalo said during the hearing. "However, further progress needs to be made. I look forward to working hard to make that a reality."

Coal mining fatalities so far this year are already at 12, surpassing a total of 8 in 2016. Zatezalo said his focus in the office would be promoting "consistent enforcement" across MSHA regions, promoting new technologies and encouraging safer mining health and safety behaviors.

"One of the biggest areas I want to focus on is on early technology adoption because the mining industry has not been at the forefront of mining technology advancement, especially for safety," Zatezalo said.

Zatezalo told the Senate committee that "absent any new evidence," he sees no reason to honor a request by a fellow past coal CEO, Don Blankenship, to open up an investigation into a mine explosion that killed 29 coal miners and ultimately led to an investigation that would land Blankenship a one-year prison sentence over mine safety concerns. Since his release, Blankenship has insisted he was unfairly targeted by authorities and in an open letter asked the Trump administration to re-examine the disaster.

At the prompting of Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., Zatezalo said he would support programs that helped operators with compliance assistance. The strategy, generally favored by industry, aims at providing technical or other assistance to avoid unsafe conditions or the need for enforcement mechanisms. MSHA recently rolled out such an initiative aimed at less experienced miners.