Yesterday afternoon, if you happened to MSHA’s website and click on the Asst. Secretary’s button, you’d see this, with the ominous caption:

“The page you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.”

That was a tell-tale sign that Richard Stickler’s recess-appointment tenure as MSHA’s chief has come to an end.  Ken Ward of The Charleston Gazette reports today in Stickler out at MSHA” that a political appointee named John Pallasch is now the acting Assistant Secretary for MSHA.

Ward reports:

“…on Thursday, MSHA officials revealed that agency staffer John Pallasch had been named to Stickler’s job…on an acting basis.  Previously, Pallasch had been a deputy assistant labor secretary handling policy matters for MSHA. Before that, he was a special assistant in MSHA’s administration unit, and worked for the labor department’s Office of Assistant Secretary for Administration and Management.”

Some readers of The Pump Handle may recall that MSHA had an “acting” assistant secretary for nearly two years, when Mr. David Dye served for Secretary Elaine Chao as the mine safety chief.  Mr. Dye was in charge of MSHA from November 2004, during the Sago disaster, and until October 2006.  He may be best remembered for walking out of a Senate hearing convened by Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) about the Sago tragedy which claimed 12 miners’ lives on January 2, 2006. 

Information about this newest “acting” MSHA chief is hard to come by, although Ken Ward tried to pry something out of Administration officials:

“…it’s not clear how long Pallasch will be running the $340 million agency or if President Bush plans to submit a different nominee to Congress.  Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, declined to answer such questions. Louviere referred a reporter to David James, the top spokesman for Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.  James did not return repeated phone calls. In an e-mail message, James did not elaborate on what Chao’s plans are for MSHA leadership through the rest of Bush’s term.”

Hmmph.  I feel a little schnookered—-just yesterday I wrote favorably about Stickler’s $220,000 penalty issued on Dec. 28 to a mine operator for flagrantly violating lockout/tagout rules.

“Perhaps the higher-ups in Secretary Elaine Chao’s office and at the White House will be busy this year stumping for their favorite GOP presidential candidates that they’ll leave Mr. Stickler alone to do the apolitical work of enforcing mine safety laws.  He’s off to a good start announcing this penalty against TECO Energy’s  (NYSE: TE) Perry Coal Mine.”

I also tried to make the case for keeping Stickler on-board at MSHA in a Dec. 14 post “MSHA’s Stickler: Will he stay or will he go?”.

“To his credit, Mr. Stickler has made a lot of commitments over the last few months to straighten things out at the agency.  He’s instituted a program to put “bad-actor” mine operators on notice (i.e.,pattern of violations), he established an office of accountability and the 100 percent plan to ensure all inspections are completed.  Perhaps he’s also learned some harsh lessons about his agency’s culture and the performance of his top staff.  The learning curve is steeper than most people realize.  With only one year left in the G.W. Bush Administration, it would be wise to keep Mr. Stickler on board at MSHA.  We should expect that he’s learned from his mistakes and demand that he make good on his promises.”  

I’m 0-100 on guessing what Secretary Chao and the White House will do when it comes to protecting workers’ health and safety.