President Barack Obama ordered an exhaustive federal review of coal mine safety Thursday and asked Congress to strengthen existing laws "riddled with loopholes."
"We can't just hold mining companies accountable. We have to hold Washington accountable," the president said in response to the April 5 underground explosion at a Massey Energy Co. mine in West Virginia where 29 miners were killed.
"We need to take a hard look at our own practices and our own procedures," Obama told reporters in the Rose Garden.
"I refuse to accept any number of miner deaths as simply a cost of doing business," he said.
The president directed Labor Secretary Hilda Solis to work closely with Congress to strengthen existing laws and to work with the Justice Department "to ensure that every tool in the federal government is available in this investigation."
"Owners responsible for conditions in the Upper Big Branch mine should be held accountable for decisions they made and preventive measures they failed to take," Obama said.
But while that mine, in Montcoal, W.Va., had a history of safety violations, "this isn't just about a single mine," Obama added.
There are far too many mines in the country whose operators aren't doing enough to protect their workers' safety, Obama said. He cited "endless litigation" on the part of mining companies "to evade their responsibility."
Obama said the government would act to quickly get inspectors into mines across the nation with "troubling safety records."
"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," Obama said.
He said the government would act to quickly get inspectors into mines across the nation that have "troubling safety records."
"If a tragedy can be prevented, it must be prevented," Obama said.
He also told federal mine safety officials to work closely with state counterparts to improve mine safety.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday ordered state safety officials to inspect all underground mines in the state immediately, beginning with ones that had been cited for combustion-related violations. He also ordered a halt to all coal mining activity on Friday.
"The people of West Virginia are in our prayers," Obama said. "But we owe them more than prayers. We owe them action. We owe them accountability. We owe them an assurance that when they go to work every day, when they enter that dark mine, they are not alone. They ought to know that behind them there is a company that's doing what it takes to protect them, and a government that is looking out for their safety."
Inadequate ventilation and a build up of methane gas is believed to have been a factor in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine.
Obama spoke after receiving a preliminary report about the Upper Big Branch mine from Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administrator Joe Main. He said their report showed there are far too many mines where safety is inadequate and that last week's deadly mine explosion in West Virginia may have been preventable.
The report says the cause may have been a buildup of methane gas mixing with coal dust. Such explosions, according to the report, can be prevented when mine operators properly control the levels of methane and coal dust.
But it cautions that the specific cause of the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine is still being determined.