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Obama orders review of mine safety enforcement

Check our Coal Tattoo blog for updatesCHARLESTON, W.Va. -- President Obama said the safety record at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine was "troubling," and called for a broad review of government enforcement programs to address an industry where he said "far too many mines aren't doing enough to protect their workers' safety."

"I think we all understand that underground mining is by its very nature dangerous," Obama told reporters in the White House Rose Garden. "Every miner and every mining family understands this.

"But we know what can cause mine explosions and we know how to prevent them," the president said. "I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply the cost of doing business."

Obama ordered the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration to immediately examine other mines with "troubling safety records" and to "ensure they aren't facing the same unsafe working conditions that led to this disaster."

The administration also indicated it would work to streamline the process for stepped-up enforcement -- including mine closures -- as well as propose changes to federal mine safety law that would increase criminal penalties and boost MSHA's investigative powers.

Massey responded that the president's statements were "regrettable" and that Obama "has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general."

United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said Obama's comments were "an unprecedented public stance for an American president to take, and one that is good news for all coal miners in the United States."

Obama spoke 10 days after a massive explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 workers in the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main briefed Obama earlier in the Oval Office, proving a preliminary report on the disaster.

Investigators believe the explosion occurred when a buildup of methane gas was somehow ignited, and then probably made far worse by accumulations of coal dust. Upper Big Branch had been cited repeatedly for improper ventilation and for dust accumulations.

"We do know that this tragedy was triggered by a failure at the Upper Big Branch Mine -- a failure first and foremost of management, but also a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue," Obama said.

In a prepared statement, Massey said the company "believes in safety, accountability and responsibility.

"We seek the truth in the ongoing investigations and are cooperating with federal and state agencies to determine the cause of the tragic accident at Upper Big Branch Mine," Massey said. "Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame. Our goal is to communicate transparently as the facts unfold."

In its report to Obama, the Labor Department said the Upper Big Branch Mine's rate of serious violations was more than 10 percent worse than the national average and that its rate of even more serious withdrawal orders was 19 times the national rate. Labor Department officials said, though, that at least three Massey mines had more total citations than Upper Big Branch.

"In short, this was a mine with a significant history of safety issues, a mine operated by a company with a history of violations, and a mine and company that MSHA was watching closely," the Labor Department said in its report to Obama.

But earlier this week, MSHA revealed that a "computer glitch" had prompted agency officials not to send Upper Big Branch a "pattern of violations" warning letter. And even if the letter had gone out, current MSHA policy -- written in 2007 -- would have simply given the company 90 days to improve and avoid tougher enforcement.

The Labor Department report blamed "policies this administration inherited" and Obama said that, despite mine safety reforms following a string of disaster in 2006, "safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom line before the safety of their workers."

Obama administration officials have focused on saying they will try to clear up a backlog of cases in which mining operators have appealed MSHA citations, orders and monetary penalties. The appeals have tied up MSHA in court, they say, making it difficult for the agency to take tougher enforcement action.

But MSHA officials have also conceded that they haven't used other potential tools, such as a provision of federal law that allows the agency to go to federal court to shut down problem mines that create continuing risks to miner safety.

"The mindset at MSHA has to change from that of the Bush administration," said Tony Oppegard, a mine safety advocate in Kentucky. "The goal is not to keep mines from receiving a pattern of violations notice, but in protecting the safety and health of that company's miners."

During his Rose Garden remarks, Obama noted that "for a long time, the mine safety agency was stacked with former mine executives and industry players," but was now being run by Main, a longtime safety director for the UMW.

But Obama also said, "We need to take a hard look at our own practices and our own procedures to ensure that we're pursuing mine safety as relentlessly as we responsibly can."

Labor Department officials also held private briefings Thursday for members of Congress, including those from West Virginia's delegation.

"Disasters on this scale were supposed to be relegated to history following the passage of the 1969 Coal Act," said Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. "It's incomprehensible that 29 miners should have perished in what appears to be a methane gas explosion, exacerbated by excessive coal dust. It is a violation of the most basic health and safety laws. We must determine why the enforcement process broke down, and hold accountable those responsible."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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