Obama to review mine safety rules after West Virginia blast killed 25 miners

The search for four missing miners ended Friday night, days after a methane explosion killed 29 at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010

President Obama said Thursday that he will meet next week with officials from the Labor Department and Mine Safety and Health Administration to get their assessment of Monday's blast at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia, where at least 25 miners were killed.

Officials are expected to discuss what could be done to prevent future disasters, the White House said.

Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis, who will attend the White House meeting, said, "Every mine explosion is preventable, and it is the responsibility of the mine operator to ensure the health and safety of the miners at all times -- not just when MSHA inspectors are present."

Lawmakers this week also promised hearings to explore what actions the mine's owner and federal regulators took before the explosion.

"We intend to look into this tragedy and convene hearings at the appropriate time," House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-Calif.) said in a statement Tuesday.

Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), who co-sponsored a 2006 measure that instituted major mine safety reforms after a Sago, W.Va., mine blast that killed 12, said he hoped to learn more about how the MSHA assigns inspectors.

"We have to make sure we have our people positioned for inspections appropriate to the risk," Isakson said.

He noted, however, that after Sago, lawmakers waited until the completion of investigations before introducing legislation. "I think the same should be called for now," he said.

Whatever the next steps, regulatory practices are too crisis-focused, government and regulatory experts said Thursday.

"It's typical in that a lot of people, including Congress, tend to only pay attention to it after some disaster has happened," said Matt Madia, a federal regulatory policy analyst with OMB Watch. "We see a lot of parallels with food safety and the Food and Drug Administration only coming under scrutiny after a food-borne illness. Or lead paint in toys. Then the Consumer Product Safety Commission draws attention."

The MSHA is a weak agency that has failed to use its authority with full force, Madia said.

Most federal regulatory agencies have seen their political influence and enforcement powers diminish in recent decades, said Brookings Institution government scholar Paul Light.

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