Reporting from Washington — President Obama on Thursday ordered top federal officials to launch full-scale inspections of mines with troubling safety records and to work to tighten laws governing energy companies that "put their bottom lines ahead of their workers' safety."
After calling mine-safety and labor officials to the Oval Office on Thursday morning to answer for the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, Obama ordered them to examine lapses by mine-company management and to look at the federal regulators' own procedures.
The survivors of the Montcoal mining disaster needed people's prayers, Obama said, but that wasn't all.
"We owe them more than prayers," the president said, speaking to reporters in the Rose Garden after the morning meeting. "We owe them action."
Initial reviews suggested the disaster was a failure of management and oversight, Obama said, as well as "laws so riddled with loopholes" that they allowed a series of warnings about safety to go unheeded.
The directive comes as West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin asks all underground coal mines in his state to stop work for a full day on Friday, to allow state inspectors and workers time to review safety conditions.
The governor has ordered state officials to work their way down the list of West Virginia mines with histories of safety violations, where an accident might be waiting to happen -- like the one at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine. The April 5 explosion at the Big Branch mine was the most deadly in 40 years of coal-mining.
Following Obama's meeting with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main, the president ordered a similar review of mines across the country. He specifically raised the possibility that the Department of Justice may have a role to play in correcting the problem of unchecked safety violations.
The review was not just about the Upper Big Branch mine, he said, but also "about all of our mines."
Although the president alluded to the culpability of mine owners, he said he didn't want to automatically pin the blame entirely on them. Federal agencies charged with ensuring worker safety had to look at their own procedures too, he said.
"I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as the cost of doing business," Obama said.