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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.