Union official turned U.S. mine safety chief shoulders a burden

Former union official Joseph A. Main heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Former union official Joseph A. Main heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration. (Msha)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 14, 2010

When explosions rocked the nation's deepest coal mine in 2001, a veteran mine safety activist flew to Alabama and confronted those investigating the blast.

Joseph A. Main, safety director for the United Mine Workers of America, wasn't shy in his dealings with federal officials he thought were whitewashing the investigation and failing to include the families of the 13 dead miners. "He screamed, he pounded his fists on the table. He'd swear and kick chairs," recalled Dennis O'Dell, a former colleague. "Miner safety has been Joe's life."

Today, Main is running the agency -- the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration -- whose investigators he attacked on that September day nearly a decade ago. And in a twist that perplexes his many friends in the close-knit industry, it is Main's stewardship that is now under scrutiny as his investigators try to untangle why the agency did not take stronger action against West Virginia's Upper Big Branch coal mine, where an explosion last week killed 29 workers.

The mine had amassed more than 1,300 safety violations since 2005 -- and in the past year at a rate far above the national average -- but MSHA regulators said it did not show the "pattern of violations" that would have let them take harsher measures.

"It's a lot different being at the helm than being on the outside with the union," said O'Dell, who succeeded Main as safety director at the mine workers union, where Main worked for three decades. Main "is torn up inside," he added. And Joe takes it personally because this explosion happened on his watch.''

'Our big task'

Main, who began working in coal mines at age 18 and is known for what associates called his brutal work hours, would not directly address criticism that his agency failed to crack down on the Upper Big Branch mine. But he vowed to "fix" whatever safety or enforcement problems the investigation uncovers, including any at MSHA.

"The thing I know in the core of my body is that the events of last Monday did not need to happen, and we can prevent them,'' Main said in an interview Tuesday. "Finding out what went wrong is our big task of the day.''

His comments came amid growing controversy over the agency's handling of the disaster. A district manager who was criticized for what federal officials called flawed inspections before a 2006 coal mine explosion has been named to lead the Upper Big Branch investigation, drawing criticism Tuesday from former regulators and industry experts. And one of Main's predecessors at the mine safety agency, Davitt McAteer, was appointed by West Virginia to do a separate report about the accident.

Industry officials said Main and McAteer occasionally clashed during the 1990s, when McAteer headed the agency.

President Obama nominated Main, 61, in July as assistant labor secretary for mine safety and health, and the Senate confirmed him in October.

The appointment was a departure from the approach of President George W. Bush: His first appointee for the post was David D. Lauriski, a former coal industry executive who was criticized for scaling back safety regulations.

Though Main's appointment won plaudits from safety experts, his union pedigree drew skepticism from some industry executives. "It was fear of the unknown, that he came from a different philosophical point of view," said Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association, a trade group.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company