MSHA nominee Zatezalo draws questions from Senate panel

WHEELING — David Zatezalo said Wednesday in Washington he agreed with sanctions placed by the U.S. Mine, Safety and Health Administration on a mine once under his leadership.

Zatezalo, a Wheeling resident, has been nominated by President Donald Trump to be the next leader of MSHA, and his nomination hearing before members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee took place Wednesday.

Zatezalo was chairman of Rhino Resources in 2011 when the company’s Eagle 1 mine twice received letters warning that MSHA planned to step up enforcement at one of its West Virginia mines because of a “pattern of violations.”

Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., asked him to explain his involvement there.

“I think management of that particular group at that particular site was not doing what they should have been doing,” Zatezalo said. “I was not proud we were designated as a (pattern of violation) mine. I did not try to lawyer up and stop things from happening. I felt if you hadn’t done your job, we should be big kids and deal with it as such.”

Zatezalo said he went on to replace management at the mine, because he hadn’t “been happy with it for some time.”

Kaine next asked him if he would have difficulties working at MSHA in light of the sanctions.

“No sir,” he responded. “They did what they were supposed to do.”

In his opening statements, Zatezalo promised to work to improve mine safety while promoting the administration’s policies.

“It’s a great honor for me to be nominated by President Trump and supported by Secretary Acosta,” he said. “If confirmed, I will support and advance their agenda for the health and safety of America’s miners.”

Zatezalo told the committee he began his 41-year mining career as an underground general laborer at the Blacksville 2 mine in Monongalia County. He later attended West Virginia University and obtained a degree in mining engineering.

After obtaining a master’s degree in business, he moved into senior management roles before retiring as chairman of Rhino Resources in 2014.

He said during his career he operated 39 mines in America and Australia.

“The mining industry in the United States today is safer and healthier now than at any time in our nation’s history,” he said. “However, progress needs to be made. I look forward to working hard and making that a reality.”

Zatezalo testified alongside two other nominees: Cheryl Stanton of Columbia S.C., who has been nominated to be wage and hour division administrator for the Department of Labor; and Peter Robb, nominated to be general counsel for National Labor Relations Board.

Zatezalo was accompanied to the hearing by his wife, Jo Lynn.

The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, said she was disappointed at the timing of Wednesday’s nomination hearings, which coincided with two votes on the Senate floor.

The hearing lasted 90 minutes, during which the committee recessed for about 20 minutes so members could cast votes.

Murray said all three nominees would be in roles that critically affect workers’ rights and safety, and she indicated she wanted to challenge Zatezalo’s record.

“As a mining executive, I’m concerned because your company had historic safety violations,” Murray told Zatezalo. “And your company was sued by the Equal Opportunity Commission for allowing discrimination to continue in the workplace … and that’s very troubling to me. I fear it’s another example of a nominee as a fox to guard the hen house, and I want to hear from you about that.”

The allotted time did not permit Murray to ask the questions she wanted to Zatezalo and the other nominees, and she said at the end of the hearing she would be submitting inquiries to them in writing.

During the hearing, Zatezalo pushed for more mine safety technology, especially proximity detection products, which are now mandated on continuous mining equipment.

He noted more research is needed on how silica is now causing health factors for young miners and leading to a new form of black lung diseases.

Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said the committee would reconvene in two weeks to consider the nominations.