President Obama: Coal mining deaths must not be ‘simply the cost of doing business’

April 15, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

Obama Mine Safety

President Barack Obama,accompanied by U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin, left, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, talks about mine safety, Thursday, April 15, 2010, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

President Obama just finished offering remarks on mine safety, following a meeting in the Oval Office with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main.

The President confirmed that he has ordered Solis and Main to take action in the wake of last week’s terrible disaster that killed 29 workers at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, W.Va.

Among the steps:

— MSHA will immediately send more inspectors out to check an unspecified number of mines that the agency believes are dangerous, to ensure conditions are not present that might cause another disaster.

— Solis and Main have been directed by Obama to work with Congress to ensure tough enforcement of existing laws, and to close any loopholes that are allowing companies to continue to violate the law.

— The president has demanded that MSHA “streamline the rules” for pattern of violations orders and take steps to eliminate the backlog of appeals by mine operators.

“We all understand that underground mining is by its very nature dangerous. 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 the cost of doing business.”

Obama Mine Safety

President Barack Obama delivers a statement on mine safety, Thursday, April 15, 2010, in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. Joining him, from left are, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, and Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Updated: Here’s a statement issued by Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis on her meeting with President Obama:

“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.”

Updated: Here is the text of President Obama’s remarks —

THE PRESIDENT: 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.


10 Responses to “President Obama: Coal mining deaths must not be ‘simply the cost of doing business’”

  1. John Rickert says:

    I noticed how the first picture is cropped so that the Safety Director of the of the United Mine Workers is not shown. Glad to see the second picture was included!

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Here’s a statement issued by the United Mine Workers of America on President Obama’s remarks:

    “President Obama’s statement regarding mine safety today is an unprecedented public stance for an American President to take, and one that is good news for all coal miners in the United States. His commitment to miners’ health and safety is, in my experience, unmatched by any previous President. On behalf of the members of the UMWA and all coal miners and their families, I thank him.

    “President Obama hit the nail on the head. 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.

    “I especially applaud President Obama’s determination that miners must have the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. UMWA members have that right written into our contracts, but nonunion miners do not have the protection of a contract and are at risk of being fired if they refuse to work in conditions that threaten their lives or their health.

    “President Obama has given the Department of Labor and the Mine Safety and Health Administration their marching orders. The UMWA stands ready to do all we can to assist Secretary Solis and Assistant Secretary Main in their effort to keep our miners safe.”

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    And here is the text of a response issued by Massey Energy:

    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.

    As to our record, we note that in 2009, under this administration, MSHA presented Massey Energy with three “Sentinels of Safety” Awards – the highest number of such awards ever received by one company in a single year.

    There has been criticism regarding the backlog of violations that have been appealed. There have been violations at Upper Big Branch that the Company does not agree with and a number of those violations have been appealed. The percentage of violations appealed at UBB and Massey is similar to that for the industry as a whole.

    The enormous backlog of appeals waiting to be heard has been frustrating to all involved. We urge Congress to appropriate the funds necessary to enable this system to work better by helping government regulators to resolve the enormous backlog at MSHA. Regardless of the backlog, however, it’s important to understand that all violations must be fixed and are fixed to the satisfaction of state and federal agencies before mines are allowed to continue operating. Most violations are fixed the same day they are discovered.

    Massey believes in safety, accountability and responsibility. We seek the truth in the ongoing investigations and are cooperating with federal and state agencies to determine the cause of the tragic accident at Upper Big Branch Mine. Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame. Our goal is to communicate transparently as the facts unfold.

  4. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    The National Mining Association issued this statement in response to my request for a comment on President Obama’s remarks:

    “Like the President, we continue to mourn the tragic loss of life, and our prayers are with the families and loved ones of those who died. We concur with the President’s view that all miners should have a ‘company that’s doing what it takes to protect them, and a government that is looking out for their safety.’ We support the President’s call for ending the backlog of cases at the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission and provided recommendations on steps that could be taken to help accomplish that in congressional testimony earlier this year. These recommendations likely are not exhaustive, but the current backlog is untenable and should be addressed. NMA has placed tremendous emphasis on accident prevention in our safety awareness programs, and we will continue to do so. We hope to learn from the investigation so that
    our mines are safer and miners return home safely to their families.”

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    John,

    On the photos, two points:

    1. The photos were published by Coal Tattoo as they were distributed by AP, so any crops were done by AP.

    2. Joe Main is the FORMER UMWA safety director. The initial cutline from AP did not make clear that he is now head of MSHA. I inadvertently posted that incorrect cutline, but have since corrected it.

    Ken.

  6. steph b says:

    Massey response #1
    “There has been criticism regarding the backlog of violations that have been appealed. There have been violations at Upper Big Branch that the Company does not agree with and a number of those violations have been appealed. The percentage of violations appealed at UBB and Massey is similar to that for the industry as a whole.”

    That may be true, but the loss of 29 employees is not similar, not at all.

    Massey response #2
    “Massey believes in safety, accountability and responsibility. We seek the truth in the ongoing investigations and are cooperating with federal and state agencies to determine the cause of the tragic accident at Upper Big Branch Mine. Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame. Our goal is to communicate transparently as the facts unfold.”

    Massey also believe in profitability. For Massey to even start to play the blame game with politicians is interesting. Their cooperation comes under scrutiny of the nation and world. If there had been no explosion, none of this would be going on. Miners would be continuing to work in “allegedly” unsafe conditions while lawyers tied up the miner’s welfare in courts on appeal after appeal.

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