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‘Revolving door’ a bar to mine safety?

West Virginia tragedy exposes ties between industry and government that put miners at risk, critics say.
Image: Dick Gephardt
Former House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, shown addressing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in January 2004, a became a coal industry lobbyist.Richard Drew / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

More than 200 former congressional staff members, federal regulators and lawmakers are employed by the mining industry as lobbyists, consultants or senior executives, including dozens who work for coal companies with the worst safety records in the nation, a Washington Post analysis shows.

The revolving door has also brought industry officials into government as policy aides in Congress or officials of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), which enforces safety standards.

The movement between industry and government allows both to benefit from crucial expertise, but mining safety experts say it often has led to a regulatory system tilted toward coal company interests. That, they say, has put miners at risk and left behind a flawed enforcement system that probably contributed to this month's Massey Energy mine explosion in West Virginia.

Industries from coal to automobiles to food processing have long sought to capitalize on the experience of former government officials or to win the appointment of allies to federal agencies, and there is nothing illegal about doing so.

"Mining is very specialized. You need experience," said Ellen Smith, owner and managing editor of the independent Mine Safety and Health News. "You can't just throw someone in who has never worked in a mine."

But such relationships have come under increased scrutiny after the West Virginia disaster, which killed 29 miners, and Toyota's recent safety problems. Former regulators hired by the automaker limited the scope of federal probes and at least one vehicle recall, documents show.

'Serious and substantial' violations
Among mining regulators, 30-year industry veteran Richard E. Stickler created the government's scoring system for identifying and reining in dangerous mines when he was head of the MSHA.

The scoring system, which President Obama singled out for criticism in the Massey disaster, has allowed mines with hundreds of unresolved "serious and substantial" violations to remain open.

In an interview, Stickler, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, defended the scoring methodology and said none existed before his tenure. "It is based on facts and numbers," he said. "The biggest problem now is some operators who are jamming up the system by contesting nearly every violation they receive. We need more judges to deal with that."

Dave Lauriski, a Bush appointee who ran MSHA before Stickler, also worked in the industry. He oversaw the writing of regulations in 2004 that allowed conveyer belt tunnels to double as ventilation shafts. The practice — advocated by coal companies but opposed by many safety experts — was identified as a key contributor to a 2006 Massey mine disaster, in which a fire killed two workers, records show.

Regulatory shifts
Lauriski said in an interview that his decision and subsequent regulations under the 2006 Miner Act strengthened ventilation standards. Since leaving government, Lauriski has been a mining consultant, advising operators on compliance with federal safety and health laws.

Mining experts said Democratic administrations often fill regulatory jobs with labor union executives hostile to coal companies. Joseph A. Main, Obama's MSHA head, directed health and safety programs for 22 years at the United Mine Workers of America.

MSHA spokesman Carl Fillicino said of Main: "Joe Main's career is not revolving; it's evolving. His career has evolved from being a safety advocate for miners at the United Mine Workers to being the nation's safety advocate for all miners as a public servant."

The Post's examination identified nearly a dozen former MSHA district directors who recently took jobs as executives and consultants with Massey or Murray Energy, the two U.S. mining companies with the worst safety records. Their mines have been the sites of at least three accidents in the past decade, claiming 40 lives. The two companies together have more than 5,700 pending safety violations.

The incentives for such job moves are significant, with industry typically paying double or triple the salary of district directors, who average about $85,000 a year.

Former government officials also have been hired as industry lobbyists. The mining sector, including coal operators and support companies, spent more than $26 million on lobbying last year, part of a dramatic increase since West Virginia's Sago mine disaster of 2006, which killed 12 and led to some safety reforms. Lobbying disclosures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that more than 170 people who once worked as congressional staffers, mining regulators or members of Congress are now registered industry lobbyists.

Coal giant Peabody Energy, for example, which ranks fifth in mine safety violations, employs about 50 lobbyists and spent nearly $6 million last year to lobby on a range of issues, including climate change and energy regulation, records show. Key representatives of the St. Louis-based company include former Democratic House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri, disclosures show.

Peabody and Gephardt officials did not respond to telephone messages, and numerous other lobbyists and industry officials declined to comment.

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA regulator and a Kentucky lawyer who represents miners, criticized what he said was a Bush-era practice of appointing industry-friendly regulators.

"Bringing people in with long ties to the mining industry to the very top of the chain of command at MSHA, I think, had an extremely detrimental effect on mining safety," he said. "They have changed the entire mission of the agency, and it has a lasting effect for years to come. The mind-set stays in place, and so do the policies."

Complaints of undue industry influence at MSHA are not new. During congressional hearings in 2006, some lawmakers questioned the high number of industry executives then running the agency.

"I underestimated the political environment that I would find myself in," Lauriski said. "I was open to a lot of public scrutiny. It was something I had to overcome." He had recruited both of his deputies from the industry.

Government experience in mine regulation, as in many industries, is considered an asset at law firms that represent coal companies before MSHA.

Page H. Jackson, who spent 30 years with MSHA as a lawyer and technical compliance director, left in 2008 to represent mining operators at the Washington-based Jackson Kelly law firm. Jackson declined an interview request.

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, which oversees safety disputes between regulators and operators, also draws from industry. Former Massey chief operating officer Stanley C. Suboleski served on the commission from 2001 to 2003 and now is back at Massey, serving on its board of directors. Suboleski did not return a call seeking comment.

The industry's influence in Washington was highlighted several years ago during a fight over safety legislation co-sponsored by then-senator Barack Obama. The 2007 bill would have allowed MSHA to issue subpoenas and to more easily shut down troublesome mines.

The proposals led to a lobbying frenzy involving more than 70 companies, industry groups and unions. They ultimately were blocked in the Senate after a veto threat from Bush and opposition from some coal-state Democrats. The National Mining Association, the industry's leading trade group, said the law would have created an "administrative nightmare."

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.