President Barack Obama speaks during a memorial for the victims of the Upper Branch Mine explosion at the Beckley-Raleigh County Convention Center in Beckley, W.Va., Sunday, April 25, 2010. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
It’s been more than three years since President Obama came to West Virginia and, speaking at a memorial service for the 29 men killed in the worst coal-mining disaster in a generation, said these words:
How can a nation that relies on its miners not do everything in its power to protect them? How can we let anyone in this country put their lives at risk by simply showing up to work; by simply pursuing the American dream?
Since that terrible day in April 2010, the Obama administration, through the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, has taken a variety of strong steps to protect the health and safety of coal miners — stepped-up “impact” inspections, a new pattern of violations rule, new requirements for better safety inspections by mine operators, and long-overdue updates to dust-control rules aimed at helping to prevent explosions and fires, just to name a couple. And it is an Obama-appointed U.S. Attorney, Booth Goodwin, who continues a broad criminal investigation into Upper Big Branch and the safety practices at the former Massey Energy.
But as we’ve written here before, several key mine safety initiatives — most importantly new rules aimed at helping to end black lung disease — have faced repeated delays and appear pretty well stalled. While West Virginia political leaders have been back at it again recently, slamming the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce coal-mining impacts and do something about global warming, you haven’t heard many of our elected officials — and certainly not the “Friends of Coal” crowd — objecting to delays in these life-saving programs.
Now, at least one West Virginia political leader is starting to press President Obama for some action. As we reported in this morning’s Gazette, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., today sent a strongly worded letter to the president about the black lung rules and a pair of stalled regulations aimed at ending the needless deaths from crushing and pinning accidents in underground coal mines. Sen. Rockefeller told Obama:
I am extremely disappointed that rules designed to protect the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners appear to again be delayed in the release of the Spring Unified Regulatory Agenda. I urge you in the strongest possible terms to direct your administration to move forward as expeditiously as possible on all of these issues, and to reaffirm your administration’s commitment to protect the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners.
It’s interesting to note that Senator Rockefeller copied his letter to West Virginia native Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who in April was confirmed as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget. The OMB, of course, is where health and safety regulations go to die, as the Center for Progressive Reform recently explained:
Throughout the rulemaking process, agencies are subjected to near-constant political interference, most notably through the centralized regulatory review process superintended by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA). To complete a rulemaking, agencies must negotiate an expanding universe of regulatory and analytical requirements. Some, such as OIRA’s review process, offer powerful conduits for political interference; others simply tie up agencies with time-consuming and resource-intensive analyses. These analyses do little—if anything—to improve the quality of individuals. Rather, they succeed only in adding months if not years to the rulemaking process.
One of the MSHA rules Sen. Rockefeller expressed concern about has been sitting at OMB since Sept. 16, 2011. The black lung rule is one that would typically take months and months for OMB to review, once MSHA gets around to finalizing a draft and sending it to the White House so that process can start. It will be interesting to see if any of that changes with a West Virginian in charge over at OMB.
Keep in mind that these mine health and safety rules are proposals that the coal industry is generally against. West Virginia University law professor and coal expert Pat McGinley explained in a recent law review article that coal industry officials worked against an entire set of Obama administration mine safety and health regulations, complaining that some of the proposals contained unreasonable timelines and that others denied mine operators cited for alleged safety violations of adequate legal appeals. The coal industry’s political friends have argued that the black lung rules weren’t really needed or that ending the disease would prove too expensive for mine operators.
It will be even more interesting to see if any other West Virginia leaders — or any of the state’s “Friends of Coal” — join Sen. Rockefeller in urging President Obama to quickly enact these rules to protect the health and safety of the nation’s coal miners. Of course, if the Democrats who control West Virginia’s Legislature and the governor’s office wanted to, they could also revisit mine safety issues and pass serious reforms such as the tougher coal-dust limits that President Obama has yet to finalize. They might also remind West Virginians that it was a little bill called “Obamacare” that made it easier for their parents and grandparents to get the black-lung benefits they deserve.
The overriding question, though, remains whether President Obama will live up to those words he spoke at the Upper Big Branch memorial service:
We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family.