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Obama's vow to West Virginia coal miners at service: better safety

President Obama addressed the families of 29 West Virginia coal miners who died in a mine explosion earlier this month. Miners say they hope he will honor his pledge of better safety, but many are skeptical.

By Carmen K. SissonCorrespondent / April 25, 2010

Chunks of coal bearing the names of the 29 coal miners who died in the explosion at Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.V., earlier this month appeared in a makeshift memorial in Whitesville, W.V., on April 13. President Obama spoke at a memorial service for the miners Sunday.

Amy Sancetta/AP

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Summersville, W.V.

Black ribbons fluttered in the breeze as a homemade pinwheel bearing 29 names turned slowly, lending a splash of color to an otherwise overcast day in southern West Virginia.

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Here, residents are still coming to grips with the state’s worst mining disaster in more than two decades. Part of that process continued Sunday, when President Obama spoke at a eulogy for the 29 coal miners who died in the accident.

It was with that awareness that Mr. Obama offered not only condolences, but also a concrete commitment to mine safety reform.

“In the days following the disaster, e-mails and letters poured into the White House,” Obama said. “Postmarked from different places, they often begin the same way: 'I am proud to be from a family of miners,' 'I am the son of a coal miner,' 'I am proud to be a coal miner’s daughter.' They ask me to keep our miners in my thoughts. Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on. Then, they make a simple plea: Don’t let this happen again."

A cause has not been determined in the April 5 accident at Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, but preliminary investigations by the Mine Safety and Health Administration suggest excess accumulations of methane gas and coal dust could be to blame.

“All explosions are preventable,” said MSHA administrator Kevin Stricklin. “It’s just making sure you have things in place to prevent one. It’s quite evident that something went very wrong here for us to have the magnitude of this explosion.”

Potential reforms

The blast, which occurred 1,000 feet below ground, left behind what West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin described as a “horrific” scene of twisted train rails and other equipment. There were only two survivors from the 31-member crew.

The Obama administration has not yet outlined its proposals for reform. But a few key changes are among the more probable, says Patrick McGinley, a law professor at West Virginia University who enforced mine safety laws in Pennsylvania as a former special assistant attorney general.