CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday promised swift and harsh action if investigators find that violations by Massey Energy caused the mine explosion that killed at least 25 workers and has raised new questions about the coal industry's safety practices.
"We'll be very, very stern to act if we find something that could have been done or should have been done," Manchin told reporters during an afternoon briefing.
The governor's response was in stark contrast to earlier in the week, when he dodged questions about Massey's safety record and evidence of growing safety problems at the Upper Big Branch Mine prior to Monday's explosion.
"I'm not comfortable any time there's an accident, no matter who it is," Manchin had said on Tuesday.
Badgered by reporters about Massey's history -- which includes the largest ever penalties for both mine safety and water pollution violations by a coal company -- Manchin conceded Wednesday there are "many questions" about how the Upper Big Branch mine was operated.
The governor also promised a quick review of whether additional laws and regulations are needed either on the federal or state level to address any findings from the Upper Big Branch disaster.
"Is there something we can do -- a state law or a federal law?" Manchin said. "I guarantee it will be done immediately if it can be.
"We've got to find out some way we can prevent this," the governor said. "The state will move as quickly as you have seen anything move once we know we can do something to protect our miners."
Manchin has promised the state will hold a public hearing on the disaster, as he did following the Sago Mine disaster four years ago.
Manchin is proudly pro-coal and has drawn harsh criticism from environmental groups for his outspoken support of mountaintop removal and his skepticism about national legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
But Manchin also has sparred with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. The coal executive sued Manchin after state regulators withdrew a permit for a new coal silo at Massey's Goals Coal preparation plant, located adjacent to Marsh Fork Elementary School, where media covering the disaster are camped out. The case was settled after Manchin apologized.
In making the rounds for media interviews this week, Blankenship has repeatedly defended his company and its safety record. He told MetroNews radio, "Any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated or illegally operated or anything like that would be unfounded."
But Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said, "We know it wasn't operating safely, or we wouldn't have had an explosion."
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.