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Senate confirms Trump's controversial pick to lead mine safety

The Senate confirmed a former coal executive with a record of serious safety violations to become the nation’s top regulator of miner health and safety.
Image: Former coal mining executive David Zatezalo
Former coal mining executive David Zatezalo, nominated by President Donald Trump to serve as the next head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, sits on his porch at his Wheeling, W.Va. home.John McCabe / The Intelligencer via AP file

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans voted on Wednesday to confirm the former leader of a coal company with a record of serious safety violations to become the country's top regulator of miner health and safety.

On a 52-46 party-line vote, the Senate approved David Zatezalo, President Donald Trump's pick to lead the Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA). Under Trump, MSHA has already moved to roll back and delay Obama-era regulations intended to protect workers in one of the country's most dangerous industries, and Zatezalo’s leadership of a Kentucky coal-mining firm has raised further concerns among worker-safety advocates.

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While he was chairman and CEO of Rhino Resources, MSHA sent two "pattern of violations" notices to the company for running afoul of federal health and safety standards. The notices are serious citations that MSHA issues to companies "that pose the greatest risk to the health and safety of miners," according to the agency.

"Instead of nominating an advocate for workers’ health and safety, President Trump nominated one of the industry’s worst offenders," Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said on Tuesday, when the Senate advanced Zatezalo’s nomination to a vote. "David Zatezalo is a mining industry executive who has made it clear he cares more about corporate profits than workers."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a leading advocate for the coal-mining industry, joined his party in voting against Zatezalo.

"After reviewing his qualifications and record of safety during his time in the coal industry, I am not convinced that Mr. Zatezalo is suited to oversee the federal agency that implements and enforces mine safety laws and standards," Manchin said in September when he first came out against the nominee.

At his Senate confirmation hearing in October, Zatezalo said he dismissed the local managers who were responsible for the violations that lead to the MSHA citations, which the agency issued shortly before and after a Rhino miner was killed by falling rocks in 2011.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., defended Zatezalo on the Senate floor, describing him as "uniquely qualified" to run MSHA given his broad experience in the industry. "He has spent his career in mining, starting as a miner. He is a member of a union," Alexander said on Tuesday.

The retired Rhino executive has received mixed reviews from labor unions representing miners, who were heartened to hear Zatezalo's promises to continue inspections and enforce certain safety regulations during his confirmation hearing, but who remain concerned about his leadership of MSHA given Rhino's track record.