WASHINGTON – President Bush's nominee to head the federal mine safety agency issued an urgent advisory to Pennsylvania's mine operators to update their maps after the Quecreek mine was flooded in 2002 and almost killed nine workers.
The following year, a grand jury determined the state's underground mine safety agency — then led by Bush nominee Richard Stickler — should have identified the mapping problems sooner. At the time, Stickler had been running the mine agency for five years.
Stickler, 61, was appearing Tuesday before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. There will also be a confirmation hearing Tuesday for Edwin G. Foulke Jr., who has been nominated to lead the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In prepared testimony, Stickler said he's dedicated to mine safety and the mission of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. He recalled working underground in West Virginia in 1968 when a methane gas explosion in an adjacent mine killed 78 workers.
"The sights and sounds of that experience as well as other tragic mine accidents will be with me as long as I live," said Stickler, of Terra Alta, W.Va.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee's ranking Democrat, questioned Stickler's commitment to safety.
"Every human life is precious. We must only confirm nominees to safety and health positions who understand this," Kennedy said. "Mr. Stickler's history is long on coal production experience but short on ensuring worker safety."
Kennedy is among a handful of members of Congress who have called for reform at MSHA after the deaths of 14 West Virginia miners earlier this month. One main criticism of MSHA, which has a 2006 operating budget of $277 million, is that it's been run by mining insiders lax in enforcing fines and opening up documents. It has been without a leader since November 2004.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who is also on the committee, said Stickler has practical experience as an underground manager, superintendent and shift foreman that would benefit the agency.
"He is a man who, for most of his adult life, has wiped the coal dust off his boots every night," Isakson said.
Stickler received a gubernatorial award for his work on the scene at the Quecreek mine in 2002 when the nine trapped miners were rescued. He ran Pennsylvania's agency from 1997 to 2003 after working for 30 years for Beth Energy Mines Inc. in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
The grand jury investigation of Quecreek did not name individuals and no criminal charges were filed. The problems were blamed on miners breaching an abandoned mine that released millions of gallons of water that trapped them until they were rescued 77 hours later.
In his urgent advisory after the disaster, Stickler wrote to the state's mines, "The consequences of inaccurate maps of abandoned workings can be catastrophic," according to documents under reviewed by the Senate committee and obtained by The Associated Press.
Howard Messer, who represents eight of the nine Quecreek miners, has said he opposes Stickler's nomination because of the secrecy surrounding the investigation that followed the disaster.
The United Mine Workers has opposed his nomination to lead the federal agency — just as it opposed his nomination to the state agency.
In 1997, the United Mine Workers wrote in a letter to then-Gov. Tom Ridge that its evaluation of federal records showed there were incident rates in mines Stickler ran that doubled the national average in six of eight years. It noted that one of the mines he managed for five years had two fatal accidents during that time.
Documents provided to the committee, however, say he was strict in enforcement, which could explain the numbers.
In 1998, one of Stickler's own inspectors complained in a letter to him about a change in policy involving ventilation in mines, documents show. He said the change would make the industry less safe for two-thirds of workers and "this policy is strictly an economical document which neither promotes or extends safety."
After Stickler apparently met with miners in New Stanton, Pa., in 1999, the United Mine Workers' safety officer wrote to the head of the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection complaining that Stickler was failing to address miners' safety concerns.
"The continued tenure of Mr. Stickler will have a grave an immediate impact on state's miners," the letter said.