Coal Tattoo

UMWA: Leadership changes at MSHA ‘troubling’

FILE - In this Sunday, May 1, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump reacts to a song during a campaign rally at the Indiana Theater in Terre Haute, Ind. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)


There’s been a lot of buzz this week over leadership changes by the Trump administration at the U.S. Department of Labor and the department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The first report I saw from Politico (subscription required) indicated this:

Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta shuffled his top staff this morning, moving chief of staff Wayne Palmer to the Mine Safety and Health Administration and replacing him with Acting Solicitor of Labor Nicholas Geale.

Palmer will now serve as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, the top spot at MSHA. Geale will temporarily serve dual roles as chief of staff and solicitor of labor.

Geale, in a statement through a spokeswoman, said Palmer’s “role at MSHA is something that’s been in the works for a while. He’s from Pennsylvania and mining is in his family’s background. His leadership as Acting Assistant Secretary will be critical as we work to ensure the safety of our nation’s miners and address some of the challenges that MSHA has had.”

The next day, there was this:

Geale said in a written statement that Palmer’s “role at MSHA is something that’s been in the works for a while,” noting that Palmer had roots in Pennsylvania and that mining was in his family’s background. “His leadership as acting assistant secretary will be critical as we work to ensure the safety of our nation’s miners and address some of the challenges that MSHA has had.” No word yet on who Trump will nominate for the assistant secretary position; a White House spokesman declined to comment. 

Then last evening, the United Mine Workers of America weighed in, with this statement from UMWA President Cecil Roberts:

The appointment of Mr. Wayne Palmer as Acting Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health is a matter of great concern to us. At a time when fatalities and serious injuries are on the rise again, after having fallen for six consecutive years, the appointment of someone with absolutely no apparent experience in mine safety and health to this position is troubling, to say the least.

Mr. Palmer may be a fine man and has experience working in the government. But what does he know about float coal dust and its dangers? What does he know about mine inspections and why they are important? What does he know about the need for ventilation, roof control, rock dusting, and a hundred other things that the person in charge of keeping our miners safe and secure needs to know?

Roberts continued:

The position of Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health is a very important one for the lives and health of our nation’s miners. It needs to be filled by someone who is an expert in the field, so that miners can have confidence that their government is putting the best people in positions to watch out for them on the job. I am not sure this appointment meets that test.

Bloomberg BNA had this to say about the situation:

Palmer’s move is also designed to address some challenges MSHA has had in ensuring inspectors are meeting medical requirements, amid reports that mining deaths are on the rise this year. The arrival of a top Trump team member could serve to appease coal miners who are valuable members of the president’s base. 

An industry law firm said this:

The White House is expected to announced a nominee for assistant secretary to lead MSHA imminently, as early as this week. The nomination will have to be submitted to the Senate for consideration and confirmation, a process that cannot begin until senators return to Washington following the late summer break.

In the meantime, the new acting MSHA chief brings a significant amount of management and political experience to his new role at MSHA. Mr. Palmer most recently served as Secretary Acosta’s chief of staff at the Department of Labor. He was part of the original “beachhead landing team” at DOL from President Trump’s transition.

He previously worked on Capitol Hill for 13 years, serving as Senator Rick Santorum’s (R-PA) chief of staff and Senator George Voinovich’s (R-OH) legislative director.

Outside of government, he worked as the senior manager for congressional relations at the non-partisan Center for Presidential Transition, focusing on improving the presidential appointment and Senate confirmation process. He also worked as a lobbyist handling healthcare issues.

He has a bachelor’s degree in political science from Penn State and a master’s in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

It’s worth remembering the MSHA leadership issues during the second Bush administration, when the agency was first run by an acting assistant secretary — David Dye — following the resignation of Dave Lauriski soon after President George W. Bush was re-elected in November 2004. Bush repeatedly nominated Richard Stickler to serve as the assistant secretary for MSHA, but could not get Stickler confirmed. There were major coal mine disasters during this period at Sago, Aracoma and Crandall Canyon.