WASHINGTON — Richard Stickler's handling of the Crandall Canyon Mine accident in Utah will likely be at the top of the list when Congress considers whether he should stay as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, senators and mine-safety experts said Tuesday.

They question his overall handling of the rescue effort, his decision to allow media to enter the Crandall mine, and his allowing the unguarded Robert Murray, co-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine, to become the main voice of the rescue effort. These come on top of more general complaints about MSHA's slow implementation of major federal mine-safety reforms passed last year.

"The quality of MSHA's investigations and resulting actions in the aftermath of the Indiana and Utah incidents will undoubtedly be a test of Richard Stickler's leadership and worthiness to be properly confirmed by the United States Senate," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said in a statement Tuesday.

The Senate in August 2006 rejected Stickler's nomination to head the agency, but President Bush appointed him to lead MSHA while Congress was on recess in October 2006. Under Senate rules, whenever the Senate adjourns for more than 30 days, all pending nominations are rejected and returned to the president.

Stickler's term is slated to finish at the end of this year, when the 2007 congressional session concludes, unless the Senate reconsiders him. Discussions of whether to renew his appointment could occur as congressional hearings into the Utah mine collapse take place.

House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who heads the House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, said Friday that they intend to answer questions about the accident and mine safety, "by investigating and convening hearings at the appropriate time."

The committee has oversight over the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Last year, Byrd and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass, who is now chairman of the Senate committee that oversees mine safety, led the effort to reject Stickler's nomination, saying he was not focused enough on worker safety.

Stickler, a West Virginia native, spent 30 years as a coal company manager with Beth Energy, the coal arm of Bethlehem Steel. He was director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Deep Mine Safety from 1997 to 2003.

After the Sago explosion last year in which 12 West Virginia miners died, Stickler told U.S. senators during a confirmation hearing that current mine safety laws were "adequate."

Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she later asked him for ways to improve mine safety, and he did not make any suggestions.

"Think about that for a minute," Murray said. "We wouldn't put someone in charge of food safety who has no ideas about how to make consumers safer. We wouldn't put someone in charge of airline safety who has no ideas about how to make air travel safer. And we certainly shouldn't put someone in charge of mine safety who has no ideas about how to make our mines safer."

Regarding the Utah mine collapse, Tony Oppegard, a former top federal and state of Kentucky mine safety official, said Tuesday that Congress needs to question why the Crandall mine's mining plan was approved in the first place.

He also questioned the decision by Stickler and Murray to allow reporters into the mine as the rescue effort was under way — a move that Oppegard said was unprecedented, adding that in 27 years of mine work, he had never seen anything like it.

"It was irresponsible on MSHA's part," he said, adding that even if Murray suggested the tour, MSHA would have had to approve it. "It was a serious lack of judgment."

Oppegard said Stickler is an improvement over Bush's first MSHA chief, Dave D. Lauriski, who had been a Utah coal executive. Oppegard said Lauriski created the Bush administration's shift in philosophy at MSHA from enforcement to helping operators with voluntary compliance.

Congress last year passed the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, known as the MINER Act, to bolster mine-safety regulations. But union leaders and mining-industry experts have complained that not all of the new requirements have been put into place and that mines are not following the rules.

Byrd met with Stickler in June to discuss progress on getting the provisions in the new law put in place. Stickler said several items would be done by the end of the year. But the senator is still concerned about reforms being implemented. Among other provisions, the law states that MSHA has to hire 170 new inspectors by Sept. 30. So far, about 120 have been hired, according to Byrd's office.

"I discussed my concerns with Mr. Stickler earlier this summer, and I am paying very careful attention to the developing situation in Utah to see if those concerns are being addressed," Byrd said.


E-mail: suzanne@desnews.com