President Obama said Thursday that part of the blame for the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, where 29 West Virginia coal miners lost their lives, lay with a failure of government oversight, and announced an investigation into the tragedy by members of his administration.
"We owe [the people of West Virginia] more than our prayers," said Obama. "We owe them action. . . . 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 mine safety officials who will help conduct the investigation will have to explain why known hazards at Upper Big Branch went unaddressed even after it was placed on a confidential list of 48 problem mines in August 2009 that should have been subjected to greater scrutiny. Six of the mines are owned by Massey Energy, operator of the Upper Big Branch mine.
The list was made public Wednesday by Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat who has long pushed for tougher safety standards at the nation's underground coal operations.
"In the name of deep public interest, today I am releasing information important to the immediate health and safety of our nation's miners," said Miller in a press release. "We owe it to the families of these fallen miners, all mining communities across the country, and the American people to ensure that all relevant information regarding potentially dangerous conditions at mines be made public, especially as investigations into the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine continue. Mine operators who game the system to avoid tough scrutiny by federal safety officials must be held accountable."
Release of the list came as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin signed an executive order calling for more than 200 underground coal mines in his state to undergo immediate inspections for combustion risks.
Mining executives told members of Congress Wednesday that they believed the conditions at the Upper Big Branch facility – where safety officials repeatedly cited operators for failing to properly ventilate highly flammable methane gas and coal dust – were not typical of coal mines elsewhere.
"We don't see the kind of level of violations that you're talking about at any of our mines," said Preston Chiaro, an executive with Rio Tinto, a mining and exploration company, according to an Associated Press report. Steven F. Leer, chairman and CEO of Arch Coal, Inc., said that safety and environmental compliance are "core assets, core values" for his company. "We take it very seriously."
Rep. Miller told reporters Wednesday he believes there is a simple reason why the 48 mines on the internal watch list kept by federal safety regulators were never shut down. The companies that operate them repeatedly appealed citations, prolonging the review process and bogging down the federal agency, he said.
As reported by ABC News, since 2006, when tougher laws were put in place, major coal companies have contested as many as two-thirds of all citations. The regulatory logjam is expected to be part of the briefing that U.S. Department of Labor officials will deliver to Obama Thursday morning.
Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, who will help conduct the mine safety investigation, told the Washington Post, "Every mine explosion is preventable, and it is the responsibility of the mine operator to ensure the health and safety of the miners at all times -- not just when MSHA inspectors are present."
Massey Energy did not respond to a request for comment.