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Obama On West Virginia Mine Explosion: Fault Lies With Mine Owners And Government, Too

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President Obama, after meeting with his top labor and mining safety officials, declared today that last week's devastating mine explosion was triggered by failures on the part of the mine's owners -- but also of the government agency charged with overseeing the industry.

Obama called Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) director Joe Main to the White House to deliver a preliminary report on the huge blast last week that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia -- the worst mining disaster in 30 years.

After the meeting, he ordered the an immediate re-inspection of all mines with troubling safety records.

He also warned of possible criminal action against Massey Energy. "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. And I've asked Secretary Solis to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation."

"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....

"This this investigation is ongoing, and 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....

"We can't just hold mining companies accountable -- we need to hold Washington accountable," he said. "And that's why I want to review how our Mine Safety and Health Administration operates. "

Although Joe Main, Obama's appointed mine-safety director, is a former Mine Workers Union health safety official, Obama noted that "for a long time, the mine safety agency was stacked with former mine executives and industry players" and he suggested that "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."

But he blamed Congress, not the executive branch, for the well-known loopholes whereby Massey Energy and other mine operators with dubious safety records nevertheless escaped greater oversight simply by contesting their violations.

He said he had directed his staff to ask Congress "to strengthen enforcement of existing laws and close loopholes that permit companies to shirk their responsibilities."

His only acknowledgment that MSHA could have addressed that loophole on its own came in his request to Solis that she "streamline the rules" for putting mining companies with a pattern of violations on a stricter inspection regime.

"I think we all understand that underground coal mining is, by its very nature, dangerous," Obama said. "Every miner and every mining family understands this. But we know what can cause mine explosions, and we know how to prevent them. I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business."

Left unresolved, among other issues, is whether MSHA will start publicly disclosing more information about its mine inspections and investigations. A Bush-era clampdown, still in effect, has prevented journalists, miners advocates and miners themselves from getting detailed information about mine-safety violations -- information that could have called more attention to Massey's violations before the explosion.

Solis issued a statement after the meeting:

"Over the past week, I have spent time with the families of the mine workers who were killed at the Upper Big Branch mine.

"The miners who perished were husbands, fathers, sons, brothers, uncles, nephews or a friend to someone.

"These men worked hard to put food on the table and support their families. They lived by a simple covenant: If they worked hard and did a good job, their employer would do everything necessary to maintain the highest safety standards so they could go home to their families after every shift.

"The best way that we can honor these men is for the Mine Safety and Health Administration to do its job with the utmost integrity and thoroughness. As the president has said, the Department of Labor and MSHA will be conducting a systematic and comprehensive investigation into what caused this tragedy. While this investigation is underway, we will look to strengthen enforcement of our existing laws and close loopholes that allow companies to avoid their responsibilities. I gave the president my word that this will happen. I am telling the families the same thing.

"Although details of the catastrophe are unclear at this time, we do know this: Mine explosions are preventable. Miners do not have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood. And every miner, at every mine, after every shift, can and should come home to his or her family safe and whole."

UPDATE: Here is the full text of Obama's remarks in the Rose Garden:

Good morning, everybody. On April 5th, the United States suffered the worst mine disaster in more than a generation. Twenty-nine lives were lost. Families have been devastated. Communities have been upended. And during this painful time, all of us are mourning with the people of Montcoal and Whitesville and Naoma and the Coal River Valley. The people of West Virginia are in our prayers.

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.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, I asked the officials standing with me -- Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and Joe Main and Kevin Stricklin with the Mine Safety and Health Administration -- to lead an investigation into what caused the explosion at Massey Energy Company's Upper Big Branch mine. I asked them to report back with preliminary findings this week.

We just concluded a meeting, where they briefed me on their investigation. I want to emphasize that this investigation is ongoing, and there's still a lot that we don't know. 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.

So today I've directed Secretary Solis, Assistant Secretary Main, and Administrator Stricklin to work closely with state mining officials to press ahead with this investigation -- so we can help make sure a disaster like this never happens again. 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. And I've asked Secretary Solis to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation.

But this isn't just about a single mine. It's about all of our mines. The safety record at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine was troubling. And it's clear that while there are many responsible companies, far too many mines aren't doing enough to protect their workers' safety.

And that's why yesterday Governor Manchin announced that West Virginia miners will take this Friday off from coal production so they can mourn their loss, but also reevaluate safety procedures. He also called for additional inspections in West Virginia mines. The federal government is taking sweeping actions as well. 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.

Second, I've directed Secretary Solis, Assistant Secretary Main, and Administrator Stricklin to work with Congress to strengthen enforcement of existing laws and close loopholes that permit companies to shirk their responsibilities.

Stronger mine safety laws were passed in 2006 after the Sago mine disaster. But safety violators like Massey have still been able to find ways to put their bottom line before the safety of their workers -- filing endless appeals instead of paying fines and fixing safety problems.

To help ensure that mine companies no longer use a strategy of endless litigation to evade their responsibilities, we need to tackle the backlog of cases at the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission.

And to help hold companies accountable, I've also asked Secretary Solis to streamline the rules for proving that a mining company has committed a pattern of violations -- so that we can empower the mine safety agency to take essential steps to keep miners safe. If a mining company consistently violates safety standards, they should be subjected to the tougher enforcement that comes with being placed on an updated Pattern of Violations list.

Third, we can't just hold mining companies accountable -- we need to hold Washington accountable. And that's why I want to review how our Mine Safety and Health Administration operates. For a long time, the mine safety agency was stacked with former mine executives and industry players. The industry [sic] is now run, I'm proud to say, by former miners and health safety experts like Joe Main and Kevin Stricklin. Even so, 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.

I think we all understand that underground coal mining is, by its very nature, dangerous. Every miner and every mining family understands this. But we know what can cause mine explosions, and we know how to prevent them. I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business. We can't eliminate chance completely from mining any more than we can from life itself. But if a tragedy can be prevented, it must be prevented. That's the responsibility of mine operators. That's the responsibility of government. And that is the responsibility that we're all going to have to work together to meet in the weeks and months to come.

Thank you very much, everybody.

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