WASHINGTON — As the bodies of four missing miners were found at a West Virginia mine early Saturday, President Barack Obama's decision to take personal interest in the investigation of this week's deadly explosion is being hailed as a refreshing change by mine safety advocates.
Obama is slated to meet with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main next week to discuss mine safety rules after the Monday explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W. Va. The blast, which killed 29 miners, including the four discovered Saturday, is the deadliest U.S. mining accident in four decades.
The president has asked the officials to report on their initial assessment of the cause and what actions could prevent further mining tragedies.
"It's clear more needs to be done," Obama said during a Friday afternoon news conference.
Obama highlighted mining's "long and proud history" of bringing heat and electricity to millions of Americans, but stressed that miners' employers and the federal government owe it to workers and their families to ensure safer working conditions.
"You would not have heard that with the Bush administration," said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and mining safety advocate. "It was all about 'compliance assistance, compliance assistance, compliance assistance.' That was really coddling outlaw coal operators."
In the meantime, pushback from mining companies against tougher safety sanctions has created a backlog of cases, clogged the appeals process and — in some instances — allowed operators to delay paying hefty fines.
Mine safety advocates worry that the backlog of cases will undermine the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which is largely credited for improved safety provisions and a general reduction of the number of miners who die on the job.
Safety advocates and the National Mining Association say the meeting between a sitting president and the mine safety agency head is highly unusual. Both groups said they will listen closely for signals that tougher penalties are in the works for mine operators with serious multiple safety violations — such as Massey Energy Co., one of the nation's largest coal mine operators and the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.
Congress also will likely look at legislation — an action that was well anticipated and not prompted by any action by the president, said Carol Raulston, a spokeswoman for the National Mining Association.
Oppegard is working with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg, Ky., to lobby MSHA to close loopholes that allow coal operators to receive a warning letter before being issued a "pattern of violation" citation — the most serious, reserved for operators who repeatedly and knowingly violate safety rules.
Massey Chief Executive Don Blakenship filed documents Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission on the mining blast including a letter in which he refutes reports of safety violations at the Upper Big Branch coal mine.
"Media reports suggesting that the UBB tragedy was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded," he said.
Massey was fined $2.5 million last year after pleading guilty to 10 criminal violations at its Aracoma Coal Co. mine in West Virginia, where two miners died in a 2006 fire. A coal slurry spill in eastern Kentucky 10 years ago resulted in a $20 million fine for Massey for violating the Clean Water Act.
Members of the House Education and Labor Committee took the mining industry to task in February for contributing to a backlog of mine safety cases amid concerns that such practices put the nation's miners at risk. After a spate of mine tragedies, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission stepped up enforcement and issued tougher penalties.
Mine owners have now tripled the number of violations they appeal and are now litigating 67 percent of all penalties, according to the House panel. According to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the index of the 16,000 backlogged cases is 616 pages long and contains at least $195 million in fines.
Mine operators counter that a scattershot approach to issuing sanctions and poorly trained inspectors are causing the backlog.
A federal report released days before the West Virginia mine explosion found that MSHA has failed to properly train veteran inspectors, even as the agency added hundreds of new inspectors to its ranks since 2006.
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