The largest US industry union said it was extremely pleased with the decision, which was made by West Virginian governor Joe Manchin and announced publicly on Wednesday.
“This marks a new day for West Virginia’s miners, as there will now be someone in that office who understands what it means to pack a lunch bucket and go to work in a coal mine every day,” union president Cecil Roberts said.
“[His] first priority has always been making mines safer for miners. He has strong experience – as an underground miner, a long-time UMWA safety and health expert and as deputy director of MSHT for the last 10 years – that will allow him to hit the ground running in this job.”
Phillips has been deputy director of the agency for the last decade. During that time he has participated in numerous mine disaster investigations, including Sago and Aracoma.
A 41-year veteran of the industry, Phillips also holds West Virginian fire boss and mine foreman-fire boss certifications and is an MSHA 40 and 80-hour instructor.
He replaces Ron Wooten, whose resignation was effective November 3. He had been in the seat since 2006.
On Wednesday, Wooten told local media, including West Virginia MetroNews, that he had left the agency to take a job with a mining company but his decision to leave had been made prior to that offer.
"I had a concern that we weren't moving forward in some [mine safety] areas that I thought were necessary. The worst thing I could do was to stay around just for the purpose of a pension," he said.
While Wooten was in place to see a number of changes to state regulations following the Sago and Aracoma incidents of 2006, including rescue chamber requirements and increased numbers of self-contained self-rescuers, he told the news service that West Virginia needed to be more active in the areas of mine ventilation and updating surface mining laws.
Those changes can be hard fought.
"It's difficult to get all of the parties together to do something positive,” he told MetroNews. “In many instances, the parties become polarized so nothing happens."
Eugene While will replace Phillips as the agency’s acting deputy director.