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

By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 9, 2010; A18

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.

"Some are stronger than others, but it's very hard to find one that hasn't had some problem," Light said.

MSHA has the authority to issue citations, levy fines and temporarily withdraw workers or equipment from mines in specific circumstances, according to Labor Department officials. It does not have the authority to permanently close a mine, but can ask a federal judge for an injunction if a company's pattern of violations represents a continuing hazard to the health and safety of miners, the agency said.

In 2007, a year after passage of reforms to bolster the agency, Miller and Reps. Lynne Woolsey (D-Calif.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) introduced a bill that, for the first time, granted subpoena authority to MSHA and permitted officials to stop production at a mine if a company failed to address violations quickly. The bill also mandated the agency take the lead on rescue efforts and provided the 2,400-staffed agency with money to hire a miner ombudsman to field whistleblower complaints.

The bill also called on the MSHA to more strongly enforce the use of explosion-proof seals to close off abandoned areas of mines.

The House passed the bill and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced legislation in the Senate. Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton agreed to co-sponsor the measure in March 2008. But the bill failed to generate sufficient Republican support. Isakson said he had not heard of the bill.

Mining industry leaders and some academics considered the 2007 bill premature and potentially confusing to mine operators still in the process of implementing reforms from the 2006 law, said National Mining Association spokeswoman Carol Raulston. The Bush administration also opposed the measure; a January 2008 Office of Management and Budget statement said that the bill "would provide no opportunity for stakeholder participation in the regulatory process and would impose burdensome and unrealistic time requirements."

But Celeste Monforton, a George Washington University public health professor and a former MSHA official, suggested that the MSHA already has the necessary powers to go after non-compliant companies.

"They need to be as shrewd and creative and protective of worker health and safety as what they get from the other side," she said.

"If people are gaming the system, fine, change it. That's not the only way they can fix the policy, but that's one easy thing."

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