WASHINGTON (AFP) Ã¢â‚¬â€œ President Barack Obama leads mourners Sunday at a memorial service for the 29 men killed this month in the worst US mining disaster in decades, saying they died in pursuit of the American dream.
Obama will be joined by Vice President Joe Biden at the ceremony in West Virginia, where the deadly blast ripped through a mine run by Massey Energy, the country’s fourth largest coal producer, on April 5.
“All the hard work. All the hardship. All the time spent underground,” Obama will say, according to excerpts from his eulogy released in advance by the White House.
“It was all for their families. For a car in the driveway. For a roof overhead. For a chance to give their kids opportunities they never knew; and enjoy retirement with their wives.
“It was all in the hopes of something better.”
Obama has blamed the operators of the Upper Big Branch mine for the disaster, vowing to step up safety industry-wide and ordering inspections of all US mines with “troubling” safety records.
The deadliest in 40 years was caused by “a failure, first and foremost, of management, but also a failure of oversight,” he said.
Obama has said the government has a duty to ensure safety standards were maintained, warning companies cannot use legal loopholes “to shirk their responsibilities.”
“We cannot bring back the 29 men we lost. They are with the Lord now,” Obama will say in the eulogy.
“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.”
Massey Energy has been hit in connection with dozens of safety violations over the years, including 57 in March alone, and paid out 4.2 million dollars in criminal and civil fines last year.
In the weeks before the blast at the mine inspectors had found problems with the air ventilation system, reports have said.
“The safety record at the Massey Upper Big Branch Mine was troubling, and it’s clear that while there are many responsible companies, far too many mines aren’t doing enough to protect their workers’ safety,” Obama said on April 15.
Massey Energy has insisted it had a good safety record and said that it was committed to a thorough investigation.
Obama made the April 15 comments after receiving a preliminary report on the accident and on mine safety nationwide.
In the eulogy, the president will note that in the days following the disaster, emails and letters poured into the White House, asking him to keep American miners in his thoughts.
“Never forget, they say, miners keep America’s lights on,” Obama will point out. “Then, they make a simple plea: don’t let this happen again.”
Coal is a vital fuel in the energy guzzling nation — almost 45 percent of US electricity was produced by coal-burning plants in 2009.
West Virginia produces 165 million dollars of coal annually, second only to Wyoming in the west, and mining remains a vital part of many states’ economies.
Federal prosecutors have brought two criminal complaints for safety violations at other mines run by Massey Energy.
Founded in the 1920s by the Masseys, a powerful industrial family, the group produces about 40 million tonnes of coal each year and is the biggest producer in the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia.
This month’s accident was the worst US coal mine disaster since an explosion killed 38 workers at Finley Coal Company in Kentucky in 1970.