Saying the nation owes more to its miners, President Barack Obama ordered an exhaustive federal review of coal mine safety and asked Congress to strengthen existing laws “riddled with loopholes.”
“We can’t just hold mining companies accountable. We have to hold Washington accountable,” the president said in response to the April 5 underground explosion at a Massey Energy Co. mine in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed.
“We need to take a hard look at our own practices and our own procedures,” Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden.
“I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business,” he said.
The president directed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to work closely with Congress to strengthen existing laws and to work with the Justice Department “to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation.”
“Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take,” Obama said.
Massey Energy issued a statement calling the president “misinformed about our record.”
While that mine, in Montcoal, W.Va., had a history of safety violations, “this isn’t just about a single mine,” Obama said.
There are far too many mines in the country whose operators aren’t doing enough to protect their workers’ safety, Obama said. He cited “endless litigation” on the part of mining companies “to evade their responsibility.”
“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.
Massey Energy, in a statement issued shortly after the president’s remarks, called Obama’s statements “regrettable.”
“We fear that the president has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general,” said the Richmond, Va.-based company. “Massey 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.”
“Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame,” the statement added.
The company said its record of filing appeals to violation citations “is similar to that for the industry as a whole.”
“The enormous backlog of appeals waiting to be heard has been frustrating to all involved,” the coal mining company said.
Obama said the government would act to quickly get inspectors into mines across the nation that have “troubling safety records.”
“If a tragedy can be prevented, it must be prevented,” Obama said.
He also told federal mine safety officials to work closely with state counterparts to improve mine safety.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday ordered state safety officials to inspect all underground mines in the state immediately, beginning with ones that had been cited for combustion-related violations. He also ordered a one-day halt to all coal mining activity on Friday.
“The people of West Virginia are in our prayers,” Obama said. “But we owe them more than prayers. We owe them action. We owe them accountability. We owe them an assurance that when they go to work every day, when they enter that dark mine, they are not alone. They ought to know that behind them there is a company that’s doing what it takes to protect them, and a government that is looking out for their safety.”
Inadequate ventilation and a build up of methane gas are believed to have been factors in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.
Obama spoke after receiving a preliminary report about the disaster from Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main. He said their report showed there are far too many mines where safety is inadequate.
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