Obama takes on mining industry in new push for tougher laws, rules

President Barack Obama on Thursday launched a new political battle against mining companies that he accused of shirking safety rules and using legal loopholes that keep regulators at bay.

Obama directed tough comments toward Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia where 29 workers died in an explosion last week.

He promised a wide-ranging investigation of the accident – the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades – and more broadly called for reforming mine safety laws and rules.

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Obama said Massey must be “held accountable for decisions they made and preventative measures they failed to take.”

“I have asked [Labor] Secretary [Hilda] Solis to work with the Justice Department to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation,” Obama said. But he also called the problems in the industry broader.

“It is clear that while there are many responsible companies, far too many mines are not doing enough to protect their workers' safety,” Obama said.

The moves by Obama, announced in public comments at the White House carried live by cable television, marked another effort by the White House to highlight its support for workers against large corporate interests.

The president has also picked fights this year with Wall Street over a regulatory reform bill, and with health insurance companies during the healthcare battle.

He also said there would be an immediate new review of mines with "troubling" safety records and that inspectors would be dispatched to those mines right away. In particular, Obama and several lawmakers say current laws allow mining companies to use appeals of safety violations to prevent regulators from establishing a “pattern of violations” at a mine.

Establishing that pattern enables tougher enforcement actions.

Obama said that mine safety legislation passed in 2006 does not go far enough. “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,” he said. 

This story was updated at 12:39 p.m.