West Virginia coal miners stopped production April 16 to mourn the 29 miners killed in the explosion at Massey Energy's non-union Upper Big Branch mine, April 5, the worst mine disaster in 40 years. The day was dedicated to reviewing safety procedures even as President Barack Obama during a Rose Garden news conference ordered a top-to-bottom review of mine safety enforcement.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts, speaking to the Pennsylvania State AFL-CIO Convention in Pittsburgh, called for the arrest of Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship for sacrificing miners' lives to squeeze out maximum profits. "U.S. marshalls should go to where he lives," Roberts thundered. "Handcuff him, put him in chains, take him to jail, set his fine at $40 million." The crowd roared.
Later, Roberts hailed President Obama's statement on mine safety. "His commitment to miners' health and safety is, in my experience, unmatched by any previous president," Roberts said, adding, "I especially applaud President Obama's determination that miners must have the right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions. UMWA members ... have that right written into their contracts, but non-union miners do not have the protection of a contract and are at risk of being fired if they refuse to work in conditions that threaten their lives or their health."
Roberts pointed out that 25-year old Josh Napper, had written a letter to his family just before he went to work voicing fears for his life due to the gassy, dusty conditions in the mine, so bad the mine had been evacuated several times in recent weeks. Napper was one of the 29 miners killed in the blast.
"There is something wrong with this picture," Roberts said. "When young men go off to war, they write these kinds of letters ... you're not supposed to write that letter when you're going off to work."
Obama called for stiffer inspection and enforcement. Flanked by Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main, and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin, the president told reporters, "There's still a lot that we don't know but we do know that 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."
Stronger mine safety laws were passed in 2006 after the Sago Mine disaster, Obama continued, "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.
"I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business," Obama said.
The president added, "For a long time, the mine safety agency (MSHA) was stacked with former mine executives and industry players." Obama said he is proud that MSHA is now headed by "former miners and health safety experts," Joe Main, former UMW director of safety and health, and mining engineer Kevin Stricklin, a lifelong advocate of miner safety.
Massey Energy "should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take," Obama continued. "But this isn't just about a single mine. It's about all our mines. The safety record at the Massey Upper Big Branch mine was troubling [and] far too many mines aren't doing enough to protect their workers' safety."
"In addition," Obama added, "we need to make sure that miners themselves, and not just the government or mine operators, are empowered to report any safety violations."
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, announced his committee will hold hearings on the disaster.
Photo: President Obama speaks on mine safety in the Rose Garden of the White House, April 15, 2010, with, from left, Mine Safety and Health Administrator Kevin Stricklin, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main. (AP/Charles Dharapak)