Obama Calls for Review of Mine Safety Policy

In reaction to the West Virginia explosion that left 29 miners dead, President Obama called today for reform of mine safety laws and regulations and better enforcement of those regulations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). His remarks are available on the White House website.

Specifically, Obama promised more scrutiny of mines with poor safety records and directed the Labor Department to tighten the rules for designating companies consistent violators. “Starting today, we’ll go back and take another look at mines across this country with troubling safety records, and get inspectors into those mines immediately to ensure they aren’t facing the same unsafe working conditions that led to this disaster,” Obama said.

President Obama is right to engage in mine safety and to lead the calls for reform. But it’s not enough to review existing laws and toughen enforcement of existing regulations. Obama and his deputies will also need to tackle the less obvious obstacles to mine safety.

Obama’s remarks make no mention of MSHA’s resources. Obama’s budget proposals have not been kind to MSHA. In his FY 2010 budget proposal, Obama called for only a 2 percent increase for MSHA over FY 2009 levels. (Congress enacted a budget above Obama’s request.) In his current budget proposal for FY 2011, Obama requests only a 1 percent increase.

Openness at MSHA is another issue the White House needs to address. The Obama administration’s commitment to transparency is well documented and has been largely applauded by open government advocates.

Unfortunately, it seems MSHA missed the memo. According to Dan Froomkin at the Huffington Post, an inspector’s notes taken in January detailing safety violations at the Upper Big Branch Mine were not disclosed to the public until after the April 5 explosion. A culture of secrecy at MSHA imparted during the Bush administration has not been corrected, experts say. Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, pointed out that MSHA has not released the names of the miners killed or the details of its preliminary investigation. "Since 1969, it's something that the agency has always done," Smith told Huffington Post.

Obama clearly sees the big picture. “I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business.” Still, the controversy surrounding the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion has exposed a number of holes in mine safety and health policy that require ongoing attention. Obama will need to make sure that any reevaluation is comprehensive and honest, and that proper reforms are implemented.

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