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Obama criticizes mine owner, orders safety review

By the CNN Wire Staff
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President calls mine's safety record 'troubled'
  • NEW: Owner of West Virginia mine calls president's criticism "regrettable," defends record
  • President Obama cites "endless litigation" over safety violations for holding up regulatory system
  • Obama orders inspectors to all mines with similar poor safety records
  • West Virginia blast killed 29 miners, the worst U.S. mine disaster in nearly 40 years

Washington (CNN) -- President Obama on Thursday ordered a review of mines with poor safety records and criticized the owner of a West Virginia coal mine where an explosion killed 29 people last week.

The April 5 blast was the worst U.S. mine disaster in nearly 40 years.

In remarks at the White House, Obama said the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine was due in part to failures by both the management and loopholes in existing laws and regulations.

Obama cited "a failure first and foremost of management, a failure of oversight and a failure of laws so riddled with loopholes" that companies repeatedly can violate safety regulations without penalty.

The president spoke to reporters after meeting Thursday with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Joseph Main of the Mine Safety and Health Administration to discuss the accident.

Obama called Massey Energy Co., a coal producer that owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, a "safety violator" and described the safety record at the mine as "troubled."

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Massey Energy later called Obama's criticism "regrettable" and defended its safety record.

"We fear that the president has been misinformed about our record and the mining industry in general," the company said.

Noting Obama's reference to a backlog of safety violations issued to the Upper Big Branch Mine, Massey Energy said it disagreed with some of the violations and filed appeals. It called the percentage of violations appealed at the mine similar to the industry norm.

Cited violations are fixed by mining companies, often the same day they are discovered, the company said.

"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," it said. "Unfortunately, some are rushing to judgment for political gain or to avoid blame."

Earlier Thursday, the company's board of directors said it was "fully committed" to an investigation and "will take any actions that the facts compel."

Obama ordered the immediate deployment of inspectors to all mines with similar poor safety records and also called for Solis and Main to examine existing laws and regulations for ways to make them more effective.

According to Obama, "safety violators like Massey" have used strategies such as "endless litigation" over safety violations to jam up the regulatory system.

The president called for steps to eliminate a backlog of mine safety violations under administrative and judicial review and to streamline the process for identifying mines that have committed a "pattern of violations" that make them subject to possible shutdown.

"We know what can cause mine explosions and we know how to prevent them, so I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business," Obama said.

Two investigations of the mine disaster already have started.

A federal investigation of the disaster is headed by Norman Page, a Mine Safety and Health Administration district manager from Kentucky.

Earlier this week, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin named Davitt McAteer, a former head of the MSHA, to lead the state probe into the explosion.

McAteer has overseen investigations into two 2006 mine accidents that killed 14 people. One was at a Massey Energy subsidiary.

McAteer, a West Virginia native, was the Clinton administration's assistant labor secretary for mine safety and is currently vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University.

McAteer was critical of Massey Energy in the days following the recent blast, calling its safety record "checkered."

"Some companies, and this appears to be one, take the approach that these violations are simply a cost of doing business -- it's cheaper for us to mine in an unsafe way or in a way that risks people's lives than it is for us to comply with the statutes, comply with the laws," McAteer said last week.

The West Virginia mine received more than 450 citations from federal inspectors last year, and more than 50 of those were for problems the operators knew about but had not corrected, according to federal mine safety records.

Inspectors cited the operators more than 100 times in the first quarter of 2010, including six times for "unwarrantable failure" to correct violations.

Aracoma Coal, the Massey Energy subsidiary, pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges and paid a record $4.2 million in fines and civil penalties in connection with the January 2006 fire that McAteer investigated.

Asked about appointing a state investigator, Manchin said Thursday that he thinks a separate probe from the federal effort is necessary.

"You need a third party," Manchin said. "You need somebody that's not connected to give you a transparent look, and that's what we've asked for."

Manchin said he hoped the two investigations could operate jointly and perhaps hold joint hearings.

In addition, Manchin has asked his state's miners to report for work Friday but to use the day to re-evaluate safety procedures rather than to produce coal.

Manchin vowed to find the cause of the blast but said he wanted to ensure safety procedures are followed at other mines during the investigation.

"If there's been excessive violations and for whatever reason they were not shut down ...there's something wrong that needs to be fixed, and we have to wait for that investigation," Manchin said. "But we don't have to wait to dedicate and rededicate ourselves to safety."

Mine owner Massey Energy said it approved of the move. "We agree with the governor's request and believe it is an appropriate way to honor the miners we lost in the Upper Big Branch tragedy," the company said in a statement.

"Massey will use this as an opportunity to reflect on the events of April 5 and will focus our attention on safety and training."

Headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, with operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia, Massey Energy is the largest coal producer in central Appalachia.

State mine safety director Ron Wooten said the Upper Big Branch Mine had been inspected on the day of the explosion but at a different end of the miles-long facility.

Wooten said state mine officials met Tuesday with federal mine officials about the joint investigation and determined that investigators would unlikely be able to enter the mine before the week of April 26.

The investigation will be painstaking and will take months, he predicted.

CNN's Dan Lothian contributed to this report.