WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama directed federal mine health and safety officials on Thursday to crack down on coal mines with a pattern of serious safety violations and urged Congress to fix safety laws that are "riddled with loopholes."
The announcement of a sweeping review of mine safety comes after 29 miners died in an explosion last week at the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. The blast is the deadliest U.S. mining accident in four decades.
Obama met with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and Joe Main, head of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, on Thursday to discuss their initial assessment of the cause and what actions could prevent more tragedies.
According to a preliminary report, the blast might have been caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas and coal dust. It also found that the citations MSHA issued at Upper Big Branch have been more numerous than average and more serious.
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Last year, MSHA issued 48 withdrawal orders at the mine. "The mine's rate for these kinds of violations is nearly 19 times the national rate," the report said.
Obama characterized the findings as troubling. He said the explosion was a result of Massey Energy Co.'s failure to maintain safe conditions and a "failure of laws so riddled with loopholes" that dangerous conditions weren't properly flagged and corrected.
"This isn't just about a single mine; it's about all of our mines," Obama said after Thursday's meeting. "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."
Mine safety advocates and unions hailed the president's action as an unprecedented public stance. "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," Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America International, said in a statement Thursday.
Representatives of the mining industry, including the beleaguered Massey, criticized the president's stance.
"Today's statements by the White House about the Upper Big Branch tragedy are regrettable. We fear that the President has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general," company officials said in a prepared statement.
Backlog of appeals
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, safety advocates say.
Advocates worry that the backlog will undermine the 2006 Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act, which was enacted by then-President George W. Bush and is credited for improving safety provisions and reducing the number of miners who die on the job.
The Obama administration will focus on streamlining and winnowing down numerous appeals of mine violations, which have made it difficult to effectively penalize scofflaws. According to federal records, several Massey mines are appealing hefty safety fines.
Massey defended its appeals Thursday, saying the percentage of violations appealed at Upper Big Branch is similar to the industry's.
Members of the House Education and Labor Committee took the mining industry to task in February for contributing to a backlog of safety cases amid concerns that such practices put miners at risk.
Mine owners have tripled the number of violations they appeal in recent years and are litigating 67 percent of all penalties, according to the House panel. According to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the index of 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 appeals backlog.
They also stressed that the process of appealing citations is not slowing corrections of safety issues. In the vast majority of cases, operators correct the hazard identified by an inspector within the time MSHA requests, said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. What gets appealed later is fines and punitive actions, he said.
Obama is directing the Department of Labor to look at mines with troubling safety records and is asking Solis and Main to work with Congress to strengthen laws and close loopholes that allow safety violators to put the bottom line ahead of safety, the president said. Those loopholes include MSHA's practice of looking only at so-called "final citations" over the course of two years — the kind of citations that rarely make it through a lengthy legal gauntlet — when considering whether to shut down a mine.
As a result, mines with a pattern of safety violations are rarely shut down.
To create lasting reform, Obama must do more than hold high-profile news conferences and call for congression al hearings, safety experts say. They say MSHA must increase the number of mandated annual inspections from four to six — a requirement of Kentucky law that officials say has reduced the mine fatality rate.
MSHA also must improve the criteria by which the agency judges the number of serious violations — rules that are now lenient, said Tony Oppegard, a Kentucky lawyer and mining safety advocate.
There are 10 criteria, but the guidelines don't work, as evidenced by the fact that only one mine has been listed as having a pattern of violations in the history of the rule, said Wes Addington, attorney with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center in Whitesburg.
"That framework is engineered not to find a pattern of violations," he said.
MSHA also must be given the power to subpoena during investigations when recurrent problems are discovered, as is the law in Kentucky, and enforce laws designed to penalize repeat safety offenders and shut down operations, Oppegard said. He is working with the Appalachian Citizens' Law Center to lobby MSHA to change the process that allows coal operators to receive a warning letter before being issued a "pattern of violation" citation.
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