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Retired Coal Executive Picked To Run Mine Safety Agency (and Even More Examples of Trump’s Corporate Government)

By Alan Zibel

Photo: Kate Wellington/Flickr

From coal to defense to consulting, corporate executives continue to flow into the Trump administration.

It’s been evident for months that, despite the campaign’s populist rhetoric, high-level corporate ties, conflicts of interest and giveaways to industry are part and parcel of how the Trump administration does business.

The latest crop of Trump administration nominees, announced Saturday, is no exception.

The most eye-popping example is David Zatezalo, formerly chairman of coal mining firm Rhino Resources, selected to run the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Donald Trump embraced coal during the campaign. He has close ties to Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy, the largest private coal company, whose employees generously contributed to the Trump campaign. So it’s logical to question whether worker safety will not be a top priority under Zatezalo.

That’s a shame because the need for an effective federal regulator to oversee this dangerous industry should be self-evident. So far this year 12 miners have died on the job, compared with eight in all of 2016. And 29 workers died in a 2010 mine explosion in West Virginia.

Will workers be protected under Trump’s mine safety agency? Zatezalo’s track record provides cause for concern. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that Rhino Resources “repeatedly clashed” with the agency that Zatezalo has been picked to run, including  a 2010 letter warning of health and safety problems as well as a second letter in August 2011.

A miner was killed when a wall collapsed onto him in June 2011, leading to $44,500 in fines, the Gazette-Mail reported. The mine safety agency also sought a court injunction against a Rhino subsidiary after officials discovered employees tipping off miners working underground in advance of an inspection.

In an interview with the Intelligencer of Wheeling, W. Va, Zatezalo said many in the coal industry – including Murray – urged him to seek the mine safety post. He described Obama-era mine safety regulations as the product of “too many elitists in the government who really just had no connection to working America.” He also said he is “not sure of all the rules and restrictions” but wants to make the mine-safety regulator more “efficient” — an agenda likely to please coal bosses rather than injured workers or their families of miners killed doing their jobs.

Other corporate nominees announced Saturday include:

  • John Demers, vice president and assistant general counsel of defense contracting giant Boeing to be the Justice Department’s assistant attorney general for national security.
  • Steven Winberg, senior program manager with the Battelle Memorial Institute and former vice president for research and development at energy producer  Consol Energy Inc. to be assistant secretary for fossil energy at the U.S. Energy Department.
  • Thomas Modly, a managing director in global government and public services sector of accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers to be Undersecretary of the U.S. Navy.
  • Bruce Walker, an energy consultant and formerly a vice president of National Grid to be assistant secretary for energy, electricity, delivery and energy reliability at the Energy Department.
  • Margaret Weichert, formerly a principal at Ernst & Young to be deputy director for management at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.