Obama orders mine safety inquiry after scathing report

Federal officials issued a scathing report Thursday showing a sky-high rate of violations by the West Virginia mine where a deadly explosion killed 29 miners last week, prompting President Obama to order the Justice Department to join the investigation and raising the specter of criminal charges.

In 2009 alone, the report notes, the Mine Safety and Health Administration issued 48 orders that workers be removed from parts of Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine for “repeated significant and substantial violations that the mine operator either knew, or should have known, constituted a hazard.”

The mine’s rate for such violations is nearly 19 times the national rate, according to the report, which the president received Thursday morning.

Moments later, Obama called the disaster “first and foremost” a failure of management. He ordered the Justice Department to participate in the accident investigation “to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available.”


“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,” Obama said.

Also to blame, he said, are government regulators and laws “so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.”

In response, Massey Energy released a statement asserting that Obama was misinformed about the company’s record and the mining industry in general.

Company officials blamed the backlog of federal appeals and said Congress should appropriate more money to make the system work better. They did not respond to calls seeking further comment.


But in a harsh condemnation of company practices and their own bureaucracy, the authors of the report said mine operators frequently avoid tough regulations by contesting large numbers of their citations.

Despite regulators’ heightened concern about the Upper Big Branch mine, the report notes, company policy along with bureaucratic and technical problems prevented the mine from falling under a tougher “pattern of violation” enforcement regimen.

The company avoided that “pattern of violation” program by repeatedly contesting fines and violations. In fact, the Upper Big Branch mine contested the majority of serious violations. In 2007 alone, the mine contested 97% of its significant and substantial violations, the report said.

In addition, the report noted that “but for a computer program error, Upper Big Branch would have been placed into potential pattern of violation status in October 2009 due to the number of significant and substantial violations in 2008 and 2009.”


Massey’s statement notes that the company has received government safety awards during the Obama administration and argues that its appeals are not out of line with the industry average.

After Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and mining safety chief Joe Main delivered the report, Obama ordered them to further investigate lapses by mine company management and federal regulators’ procedures.

As he offered prayers for the people of West Virginia, Obama said they deserve more.

“We owe them action,” he said, speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden after the 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.”


West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III, a Democrat, asked all underground coal mines in his state to stop work Friday to allow state inspectors and workers to review safety conditions.

Manchin ordered state officials to work their way down the list of West Virginia mines with histories of risky violations in search of other accidents waiting to happen. The April 5 Upper Big Branch explosion was the deadliest U.S. coal mining disaster in almost 40 years. Its cause has not been determined, but high methane levels are suspected.

“This isn’t just about a single mine; it’s about all of our mines,” Obama said. “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.”