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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.

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They are:

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  • Raising the required percentage of incombustible materials like rock dust, which are used to cover the lighter, more volatile coal dust.
  • Increasing methane testing in the area where miners are working from every 30 minutes to every 15, or even real-time, and placing greater emphasis on detection instrumentation.
  • Revamping the pattern of violation screening. Under current laws, companies receive a closure order only when they’ve accumulated enough final violations. Massey Energy, which owns the Upper Big Branch Mine, received 57 citations there last month – including one for failing to properly ventilate methane – and racked up $382,000 in fines, but many were being contested, keeping them from counting towards a closure order. If all citations and violations are allowed, even those in dispute, companies may be persuaded to resolve issues more quickly in order to prevent a shutdown.

For Mr. McGinley, the hope is that the federal government will act before momentum for reform fades.

“The fear with this disaster is like it is with virtually every coal mining disaster in the last century: that we say miners won’t die in vain and this will never happen again, but then as time passes, the concern about mine safety diminishes and there’s another disaster,” he says.

Obama's visit: gratitude and skepticism

For locals gathered at Cox’s, a gas station and snack bar in nearby Pettus, W.V., anything the government can do to make coal mining safer would help. Larry Asbury spent 27 years working the mines in nearby Whitesville and said he’s glad Obama’s getting involved.

“It shows he has concern for the working class people,” Mr. Asbury said. “He needs to come down hard on safety in the mines. Every American citizen should have the right to work safe.”

But others weren’t so sure, noting Obama’s snub of West Virginia while on the campaign trail and attributing the presidential visit to little more than political grandstanding.

“It takes an explosion to get him here,” said Carl Asbury, Larry’s brother. “What was he doing six months ago? He could have been here and prevented this. It’s a shame it takes 29 miners to get blown up to get the politicians awake and enforcing the laws.”

Starting a dialogue

On Sunday, Obama chose to speak in broad terms rather than outline specific reforms.

“We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost,” he said. “They are with the Lord now. Our task, here on Earth, is to save lives from being lost in another such tragedy. To do what must be done, individually and collectively, to assure safe conditions underground. To treat our miners the way they treat each other – like family. For we are all family. We are Americans."

It was a wise decision to stay general, says safety advocate and US Senate labor committee special adviser Ron Hayes. Obama is not broadly popular in West Virginia, given his desire to move the country off coal and toward greener power. But a dialogue can – and should – be opened.

“Right now, you have a situation where you have 29 dead miners and people still going in the mines, terrified, feeling guilty – a lot of times it clouds things,” Hayes said. “The blame game is going to be started, and they’ve got to blame somebody. This is a mechanism of the grief process, whether it’s righteous or not.”