U.S. News

Obama seeks accountability as mine death toll hits 29

MONTCOAL, West Virginia (Reuters) - President Barack Obama demanded accountability on Saturday after four missing West Virginia coal miners were found dead, nearly five days after an explosion killed 25 others in the worst U.S. mining disaster in nearly four decades.

The four bodies were found in an area of the Massey Energy mine briefly searched after the blast on Monday but missed by rescuers because of heavy smoke, Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration told reporters.

“We cannot bring back the men we lost. What we can do, in their memory, is thoroughly investigate this tragedy and demand accountability,” Obama said in a statement.

Rescue teams found the miners on their fourth attempt after earlier efforts were thwarted by thick smoke, fire and an explosive build-up of methane, carbon monoxide and hydrogen.

Rescuers had hoped the miners made it to a refuge chamber stocked with food, water and oxygen at the Upper Big Branch mine, 30 miles south of the state capital, Charleston.

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“We did not get the miracle we prayed for,” an emotional West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin told a news briefing.

With the death toll at 29, the West Virginia disaster is the deadliest U.S. mine accident in nearly 40 years. In 1972, 125 people died after a dam broke at Buffalo Mining Company in Saunders, West Virginia, and, in 1970, 38 miners died after an explosion at Finley Coal Company in Hyden, Kentucky.

Only seven bodies were recovered on Monday and the first funerals were held on Friday. Stricklin said efforts were now underway to recover the remaining 22 bodies, many of which would have to be carried out by rescuers.

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Stricklin said all of the miners most likely died in the initial explosion and that “the only good thing that will come out of this” would be additional education and regulation to ensure such a disaster doesn’t happen again.

During the painstaking rescue effort boreholes were drilled 1,100 feet into the mine for ventilation and then nitrogen was pumped into the mine to neutralize the threat of an explosion and extinguish the fire.

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At the White House on Friday, Obama said more needed to be done to improve the safety of the U.S. mining industry.

He has ordered mine safety officials to report next week on the explosion, the mine’s safety record and what steps the government could take to prevent further disasters.

Questions have arisen about safety at Massey, the largest coal producer in the Central Appalachia mountain region. The company has defended its record, saying its accident rate hit an all-time low in 2009 and that suggestions that the explosion was due to a disregard for safety were “completely unfounded.”

Massey told shareholders in a public letter it planned to reopen the mine “at some point in the future,” and in the meantime would increase production at its other mines and put Upper Big Branch miners back to work.

Shares of Massey closed up about 1 percent on the New York Stock Exchange on Friday after losing more than 10 percent since the accident. Analysts predict the company will see long-term financial health.

Federal records show Upper Big Branch had three fatalities since 1998, a worse-than-average injury rate in the past 10 years and was cited for more than 100 safety violations this year. Massey said Upper Big Branch’s violation rate was “consistent with national averages.”

Writing by Michelle Nichols, additional reporting by Ross Colvin, editing by Chris Wilson