A little more than five months later, though, the Upper Big Branch Mine blew up. MSHA's agenda shifted to the largest mine disaster investigation in history, and its regulatory agenda was diverted toward initiatives responding to Upper Big Branch.
Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety advocate, said some of Obama's strongest mine safety efforts grew out of the Upper Big Branch response.
For example, MSHA has continued an effort of "impact inspections" that send multiple inspectors on surprise visits to problem mines. Agency officials say that since September 2010, the rate of serious violations is down 21 percent and the injury rate down 13 percent at mines targeted by these inspections.
"I've always felt that should be a regular part of MSHA's enforcement program," Oppegard said. "It's clearly showing dividends."
Oppegard said he's also pleased that MSHA has been more aggressive in seeking reinstatement for miners who allege they were fired for complaining about safety problems.
UMW officials say they're also pleased with a general upswing in enforcement, and with changes that have inspectors visiting mines on weekends and evening shifts, instead of just during weekday dayshifts.
But the UMW butted heads with Main over the Upper Big Branch investigation, when union safety officers picked as miners' representatives by some Upper Big Branch workers were kept out of investigation interviews and when MSHA dropped plans for public hearings on the disaster.
Administration officials said they backed off a more public investigation to avoid interfering with an ongoing criminal probe of the disaster and of broader safety issues at Massey.
In December 2011, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin and his team secured a $209.5 million settlement with Alpha Natural Resources, which acquired the Upper Big Branch Mine when it bought Massey Energy.
Goodwin agreed not to prosecute the company for any Upper Big Branch criminal liabilities, but required Alpha to spend $80 million during the next two years on mine safety improvements and create a $48 million mine safety research trust fund. Alpha also agreed to pay $46.5 million in restitution to families of the disaster victims and $35 million to resolve pending Massey safety fines, including $10.8 million levied for violations related to the Upper Big Branch explosion.
Unlike a Bush administration plea agreement with Massey following the deaths of two miners in 2006, Goodwin's settlement did not prohibit prosecutors from pursuing charges against any individuals -- including Massey officers, employees or agents -- who played a role at Upper Big Branch.
So far in the probe, a mine security director was convicted and one miner and one superintendent have pleaded guilty. No charges have been brought against higher-up Massey officials. Goodwin said earlier this month that more charges are expected "very shortly," and that he believes the probe will continue regardless of who wins next month's election.
Main declined requests for a detailed interview for this story. When asked during a recent visit to Charleston about his record and the prospects of a second Obama term, Main said only that "there's more work to do" on mine safety issues.
MSHA has been touting a record low mining death rate in 2011. But that figure actually applies only to all mining sectors combined. The coal-mining death rate nationwide was actually slightly lower in 2009 than last year, according to MSHA data. And through late last week, the total coal-mining deaths in 2012 were actually slightly greater than the number at the same time in 2011.
"Things haven't changed," said Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and president of the Center for Progressive Reform, a left-leaning think tank. "It's nice that the slip-and-fall rate has fallen by a small amount, but you need a magnifying glass to see it."
Steinzor's group is especially concerned, though, about Romney's embrace of a requiring all agencies to cap their regulatory costs, so when agencies issue a new rule, they have to eliminate an existing rule with the same or greater estimated costs.
In a recent paper, the center said such a policy would "operate as a one-way ratchet, gradually reducing safeguards over time, and it would add to the already massive procedural obstacles agencies must overcome to continue protecting people and the environment against new and emerging threats."
At the same time, other mine safety advocates are worried that the budget proposal put forth by Ryan would slash MSHA's enforcement staff back to the weakened levels prior to congressional intervention following the series of mine disasters in 2006 and 2007.
An analysis by Democratic staff from the House Education and the Workforce Committee concluded Ryan's budget proposal would eliminate 100 MSHA coal inspectors by 2014. The agency would be left with 311 coal inspectors, fewer than the 326 on staff the year of the Sago Mine Disaster, the analysis said.
"The Ryan budget doesn't keep faith with our nation's workers and coal miners," said Rep. George Miller, the committee's ranking Democrat. "It would put miners' lives at greater risk from mine owners who operate outside the margins of safety."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.