WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama's decision to take personal interest in the investigation of a deadly explosion this week that killed at least 25 West Virginia coal miners 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 explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine.
The president has asked the officials to report on their initial assessment of the cause of the nation's worst coal-mining disaster in more than a quarter century and what actions could prevent further mining tragedies.
"It's clear more needs to be done," Obama said during a Friday afternoon news conference.
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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."
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 largest coal mine operators in Kentucky and the owner of the Upper Big Branch mine.
Congress also will probably look at legislation — an action that was 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 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 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. Massey's history in Kentucky includes a slurry spill in 2000 in Martin County that resulted in a $20 million fine for violating the Clean Water Act.
The company last month bought Cumberland Resources, an Abingdon, Va., company whose subsidiary, Black Mountain Resources, is based in Harlan County and runs several mines in Letcher and Harlan counties.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship filed documents Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission on the latest mining blast, including a letter in which he asserts "media reports suggesting that the UBB tragedy was the result of a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded."
"Our lost-time incident rate has been better than the industry average for 17 of the past 19 years, improving significantly in recent years," Blankenship said. "These improvements have been achieved through concerted effort and significant investment."
Meanwhile, push back from mining companies in Kentucky and other states against tougher safety sanctions has created a backlog of cases, clogged the appeals process and allowed operators to delay paying hefty fines.
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 in 2005 and 2006, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission stepped up enforcement and issued tougher penalties.
Mine owners, many of them in Kentucky and other Appalachian states, have now tripled the number of violations they appeal and are now litigating 67 percent of all penalties, according to the House committee. The backlog of cases due for review has jumped from 2,100 in 2006 to approximately 16,000 presently.
In Kentucky, mine operators appeal 80 percent of the fines for serious safety violations, according to MSHA. 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-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.
In 2007, a collapse at Crandall Canyon in Utah killed nine miners. In 2006, an underground explosion at the Darby Mine in Harlan County, Ky., killed five people, and an explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia killed 12 miners.
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. However, it is to quantify the impact of lack of advanced training on overall mine safety, Oppegard said.