WASHINGTON – The former coal operator chosen by President Bush to oversee mine safety received a medal from Pennsylvania's governor for his work when nine trapped miners were rescued in 2002. But Richard Stickler is likely to be questioned closely about that same work next week at his Senate confirmation hearing.
The United Mine Workers union has criticized the safety record of the mines in Pennsylvania and West Virginia that Stickler, 61, operated before he was appointed to run Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety in 1997. On Tuesday, the union sent Bush a letter asking him to withdraw the federal nomination.
The Quecreek disaster in Pennsylvania occurred while Stickler was at the helm of the state agency, and the attorney who represents eight of the trapped miners said he does not support Stickler's appointment because of the secrecy involved in the investigation that followed.
Also, a grand jury in 2003 determined the state agency should have red-flagged mapping problems that were blamed for miners at Quecreek breaching an abandoned mine that released millions of gallons of water that trapped them until they were rescued 77 hours later. No criminal charges were filed, and the grand jury did not fault any individuals.
After the recent deaths of 12 miners at Sago mine and two others in Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 in West Virginia, some members of Congress are demanding changes at the Mine Safety Health Administration that Stickler has been tapped to lead.
"He's going to have to demonstrate that he's willing to be an advocate for miners' safety within the administration, and he's going to have to show that he's willing to put safety first," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.
Stickler resides in Terra Alta, W.Va., and worked for 30 years for Beth Energy Mines Inc. He has not commented publicly since his nomination in September.
Stickler, appointed to the Pennsylvania agency by then-Gov. Tom Ridge, was one of six state employees in 2002 who received a gubernatorial medal for work on the scene at Quecreek. Pennsylvania Coal Association President George Ellis said the strength he showed during the successful mine rescue is probably one reason he was appointed to the federal position.
"With Richard, he has no agenda other than promote mine safety," Ellis said. "He's always been accessible to all sides."
The attorney representing eight of the Quecreek miners disagrees.
"Here's the problem, you're either working in the government trying to get a job with the coal industry, or vice versa, so that people have to understand this is a very closed community and in order to protect the coal miners, we need someone to open up the process and ensure it's fair," said Howard Messer, the miners' attorney.
In 1997, the United Mine Workers opposed Stickler's nomination to run the state agency, which he went on to lead from 1997 to 2003. The agency has a current budget of $5.7 million compared to the federal Mine Safety Health Administration's $277 million operating budget for 2006.
Citing federal records, the union wrote in a letter to Ridge before Stickler's Pennsylvania appointment that an evaluation by the union showed there were incident rates in mines he ran that doubled the national average in six of eight years, and one of the mines he managed for five years had two fatal accidents during that time.
"We believe it needs to be somebody who has not spent their entire career figuring out how to put production ahead of safety and trying to figure out how to circumvent safety laws so they can increase the productivity," said Phil Smith, a UMW spokesman.
One of the main criticisms of the federal agency in recent years -- particularly during the Bush administration -- is that it is run by those with close ties to mining, and that it is lax in enforcing fines and opening up documents.
California Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the committee that oversees the Labor Department, said lawmakers should look at Stickler's nomination with "a new level of diligence," especially when it comes to assessing his views on "enforcement of the law and compliance of the law."