Trump nominates coal companies’ preferred candidate to head up mine safety

David Zatezalo admits he's "not sure of all the rules and restrictions."

Flowers sit outside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in honor of the 29 miners who died in an explosion at the mine in 2010. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta
Flowers sit outside Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in honor of the 29 miners who died in an explosion at the mine in 2010. CREDIT: AP Photo/Amy Sancetta

The White House nominated a former chief executive of a major coal company with a checkered safety history to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), an agency tasked with regulating and enforcing health and safety issues for the nation’s mining sector.

Over Labor Day weekend, President Donald Trump announced his intention to name David Zatezalo to serve as assistant Labor secretary for mine safety and health, the formal title for the government official who heads MHSA. Zatezalo retired in late 2014 as chairman of coal producer Rhino Resources after serving in various top posts at Rhino, including president and chief executive officer and chief operating officer.

Zatezalo was head of Rhino Resources earlier this decade when the company was issued two “pattern of violations” letters from MSHA over safety and health issues at its mines in West Virginia and Kentucky. At the time, the Obama administration was seeking to improve enforcement of mine safety following the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.

MSHA had sought a federal court injunction against Rhino Resources when it discovered mine employees giving advance notice of an agency inspection to miners working underground at a Rhino Resources mine in Kentucky, the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Ken Ward reported.  A federal judge granted a temporary restraining order sought by MSHA and later issued an injunction that prohibited advance notice at the mine.

Twelve coal miners have died on the job in the United States so far in 2017. Mining deaths are rising nationally after dropping for several years following the deaths of 29 miners in the April 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

“MSHA’s first and only priority is miners’ health and safety. 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,” United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said in a statement.

Zatezalo, who previously served as chairman of the Ohio Coal Association and the Kentucky Coal Association, needs Senate confirmation to assume his new post.

Zatezalo said in an interview with the Intelligencer of Wheeling, West Virginia that Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, a vocal supporter of Trump, and other coal executives reached out to him earlier this year to come out of retirement and consider the MSHA post. Murray Energy co-owned a coal mine in Utah that collapsed in 2007, leading to the death of six workers. Three rescuers were killed in a subsequent collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine.

“I am pretty excited because I think for the first time we have a president who is more in tune with working America rather than being lofty and esoteric in what he wants to do,” Zatezalo told the Intelligencer. “I think it’s going to be difficult in that I’m in the position that I don’t know what I don’t know because I’ve never worked in government. I’m not sure of all the rules and restrictions.”

Joseph Main, who headed MSHA under President Barack Obama, had a long history in mine safety issues prior to his confirmation. Main worked as a mine safety consultant and served on federal advisory committees, joint labor-management committees, and mining industry partnerships. He also served as administrator of the UMWA Occupational Health and Safety Department, a position he held for 22 years, managing the international health and safety program and staff.

Zatezalo received a mining engineering degree from West Virginia University in 1977 and completed the MBA program at Ohio University in 1994.