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West Virginia mine has been cited for myriad safety violations
The tone of federal enforcement, industry experts say, can be set by the president, who appoints the head of the MSHA. President George W. Bush chose David D. Lauriski, a former coal industry executive. President Obama chose Joseph A. Main, a former safety director for the United Mine Workers of America.
Former federal officials and others who know mining said that Lauriski initially scaled back mine-safety regulation and that, under the Bush administration, 17 of 26 regulations proposed by the Clinton administration were dropped or withdrawn.
"Lax is not nearly a strong enough word to describe how mine safety was handled in the first part of the Bush administration," said Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America. "It became a lot less about enforcing rules and regulations and more of a touchy-feely thing: It's bad what you are doing, and you need to do better."
But Smith said enforcement stiffened during the Bush administration's final few years, especially after the Sago disaster.
Lauriski did not return calls seeking comment Tuesday.
"There will be a full, thorough investigation of the issues raised here," Main said. "It's going to involve a multitude of different investigative bodies."
Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.