WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Thursday put primary blame for last week’s deadly West Virginia coal mine disaster on owner Massey Energy and called for better mine oversight nationwide to prevent more accidents.
Obama said the safety record at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch mine, where an explosion killed 29 miners on April 5, was deeply troubling and said the company had “put their bottom line before the safety of their workers.”
“The people of West Virginia are in our prayers. But we owe them more than prayers. We owe them action,” Obama told reporters in the White House Rose Garden.
“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.”
Obama said the company’s management should be held accountable for the accident.
“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,” he said.
Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in the Central Appalachia mountain region, has rejected suggestions that the explosion was due to a disregard for safety and has said its accident rate hit an all-time low in 2009.
It responded to Obama with another defense of its safety record.
“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,” the company said in a statement.
“Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame. Our goal is to communicate transparently as the facts unfold.”
It added it was cooperating with federal and state agencies to determine the cause of the accident.
Obama said the federal government would start immediately to look at mines with troubling safety records across the country, sending inspectors to ensure sound safety conditions.
He also directed officials to work with Congress to strengthen mine safety laws.
“Stronger mine safety laws were passed in 2006 ... 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,” he said.
Massey said the percentage of violations it had appealed was in line with the industry as a whole.
A preliminary report ordered by Obama into the accident said federal mine safety inspectors had warned Massey in 2007 the mine could be declared to have a “pattern of violations,” which would have given the government greater oversight.
Though the mine then reduced safety problems, there was a spike in violations in 2009, with 515 citations last year and 124 so far this year, the report found.
“The citations ... issued at Upper Big Branch have not only been more numerous than average, they have also been more serious,” the report said.
Obama met on Thursday with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main before delivering his remarks.
He directed 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.”
The West Virginia disaster was 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 38 miners died in 1970 after an explosion at Finley Coal Company in Hyden, Kentucky.
Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Stephen James; editing by Paul Simao