Obama Assigns Responsibility for Mining Blast, Outlines Strategy for Reform

Created: April 15, 2010 13:06 | Last updated: July 31, 2020 00:00

President Obama President Obama delivers remarks on coal mine safety in the Rose Garden of the White House on Thursday. (EPA/ZUMApress.com)

“We owe them more than prayers. We owe them action.”

Those were the words of President Obama, who spoke from the White House Rose Garden this morning on steps he plans to take in the wake of last week’s explosion that took the lives of 29 West Virginia coal miners. And he didn’t mince words when it came to assigning fault for the calamity.

[Environment1] “There’s still a lot that we don’t know,” he said. “But 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.”

Although the Upper Big Branch was cited with more than 120 safety violations this year — and although parts of it were closed more than 60 times in the last 15 months over safety concerns — government regulators never took the step of shuttering the entire project. Dozens of other Massey mines, racking up thousands of similar safety citations this year, continue to operate in Appalachia.

Don Blankenship, Massey’s unapologetic CEO, said this week that the company’s long record of safety violations is irrelevant to last week’s blast.

“When somebody says, ‘Did the violations have anything to do with the accident?’ — they should not,” Blankenship told Charleston’s Daily Mail. “Because every violation is abated and agreed to by everyone before there is any further mining. So you would not think that any violation of the past had any relevance.”

Obama, though, isn’t buying it. And today, he outlined a new strategy forward — one that targets all mines, not just those run by Massey.

  • Immediate inspections of all mines. “Starting today, we’ll go back and take another look at mines across this country with troubling safety records, and get inspectors into those mines immediately to ensure they aren’t facing the same unsafe working conditions that led to this disaster.”
  • Closing the loopholes that keep unsafe mines open. “I’ve directed [Labor Department leaders] to work with Congress to strengthen enforcement of existing laws and close loopholes that permit companies to shirk their responsibilities.” That means tackling the backlog of violation appeals that companies have made to delay fines and avoid mine closures.
  • Overhauling the Mine Safety and Health Administration. “For a long time, the mine safety agency was stacked with former mine executives and industry players. … 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. In addition, we need to make sure that miners themselves, and not just the government or mine operators, are empowered to report any safety violations.”

The steps were immediately applauded by the United Mine Workers of America, which issued a statement saying that Obama “hit the nail on the head.”

“His commitment to miners’ health and safety is, in my experience, unmatched by any previous president,” said UMWA President Cecil Roberts. “The issues surrounding the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine are very troubling, and we need to get to the bottom of what happened there. But we must go further and deal with the larger issue of serial safety violators like Massey that must be addressed.”

Some state officials have already taken it upon themselves to install similar precautions. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin (D), for example, has shut down all underground mines in the state Friday, to allow the coal companies to inspect those projects for safety problems.

Congress is making plans to tackle these issues as well. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate labor panel, has scheduled a hearing on mining safety for April 27. And in the House, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who heads the Education and Labor panel, is planning to do the same, though the date hasn’t been set.

Such steps, Obama said Thursday, are the least the country can do for the miners who toil daily underground to keep energy costs cheap for everyone.

“We owe them an assurance that when they go to work every day, when they enter that dark mine, they are not alone,” Obama said. “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.”