President Barack Obama ordered top federal officials to launch a full-scale safety review of coal mines around the nation on Thursday, and asked Congress to close legal loopholes that let companies “put their bottom line before the safety of their workers.”
After summoning safety and labor officials to the Oval Office to answer for the recent explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, Obama ordered them to examine lapses by mine company management — as well as by the federal regulators’ own procedures.
In unusually blunt criticism of the coal companies, Obama said the disaster at Montcoal was “first and foremost” one of management. Also to blame, he said, are actions of government regulators and laws “so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.”
Shortly after the president spoke, Massey Energy, owner of the Upper Big Branch Mine where last week’s disaster occurred, released a public statement calling the president’s remarks “regrettable” and asserting that Obama is misinformed about the company’s record and about the mining industry in general.
As he offered his prayers for the survivors of the Montcoal mining accident, Obama said that’s not all they deserve.
“We owe them action,” Obama said, speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden after the morning meeting. “We owe them accountability. ... 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.”
The president’s directive comes as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin asked all underground coal mines in his state to stop work for a full day on Friday, to allow state inspectors and workers time to review safety conditions.
The governor has ordered state officials to work their way down the list of West Virginia mines with histories of safety violations in search of other such accidents that may be waiting to happen. The April 5 Upper Big Branch explosion was the most deadly in 40 years of coal mining.
In 2009, under the Obama administration, the Mine Safety and Health Administration presented individual Massey mines with three “Sentinels of Safety” awards, which the company says is the highest number of those awards given a single company in one year. But the Upper Big Branch Mine was cited for 515 violations in 2009 and 124 so far this year, federal statistics show.
As for the backlog of violations under appeal by the company, the Massey statement says they are not out of line with the industry average.
“The enormous backlog of appeals waiting to be heard has been frustrating to all involved,” the statement reads.