WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama ordered a sweeping review Thursday of coal mines with poor safety records and called on federal officials to strengthen laws "so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue."
Obama spoke after receiving a preliminary report on last week's deadly mine explosion in West Virginia that suggests the blast may have been caused by a preventable buildup of methane gas mixing with coal dust.
The report from Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and mine safety officials cautioned that the specific cause of the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine where 29 workers died is still being determined. But it raised serious concerns about a major spike in safety violations at the mine owned by Massey Energy Co.
The report said the rate of serious violations in 2009 that required mine workers to leave while immediate repairs were made was nearly 19 times the national rate.
"In short, this was a mine with a significant history of safety issues, a mine operated by a company with a history of violations, and a mine and company that [the Mine Safety and Health Administration] was watching closely," the report said.
Obama said the report showed there are far too many mines where safety is inadequate. "We need to take a hard look at our own practices and our own procedures," he told reporters in the Rose Garden.
The president directed 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."
While Obama conceded the government was partly at fault for the disaster, he laid most of the blame for the latest accident on the mine's owner.
"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," Obama said.
Massey Energy called Obama's remarks "regrettable" and said the president was "misinformed about our record."
Obama said there are far too many mines whose operators aren't doing enough to protect workers' safety. He cited "endless litigation" by companies "to evade their responsibility."
Under the current system, mining companies can file lengthy appeals, overwhelming government officials and delaying a finding of violations that would lead to tougher enforcement.