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Coal Mine Disaster: An Act of God, But NEVER an Act of Greedy Corporations

Photo: Earl Dotter  

Mine owner Robert Murray didn’t even wait until the six men in the collapsed Crandall Canyon coal mine had been found before he started deflecting blame for the disaster and denying any role his mine practices played in the collapse (in between yelling at circling news helicopters and insisting there is no emergency).

As six miners remain buried, beneath 1,500 feet of nearly solid rock near Huntington, Utah, Murray went on a rant at a press conference, yelling at circling news helicopters and insisting there was no emergency and attacking by name leaders of the Mine Workers (UMWA) union. But wait—the Crandall Canyon Mine isn’t unionized. And what about rescuing the trapped miners, whose chances for survival are narrowing every hour?

UMWA President Cecil Roberts, whom Murray attacked by name yesterday, said:

It is very unfortunate that at a time when six miners remain trapped underground and rescuers, including members of the UMWA, are risking their lives to find them, Mr. Murray has chosen to take time away from his urgent responsibilities to conduct himself in this manner.

Maybe Murray hoped that by flinging mud, he could avoid scrutiny of a few inconvenient facts. Like the 325 citations his mine has been issued by federal mine inspectors since January 2004, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) online records. Of those, 116 were what the government considered “significant and substantial,” meaning they are likely to cause injury.

Workers’ safety is not something Murray has publicly supported. During an interview with Fox News in May, Murray responded to a comment from presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton who asked a crowd whether they were ready for a president who is “pro-labor and will appoint people who actually care about workers’ rights and workers’ safety.”

The Salt Lake Tribune reports this exchange between Murray and Fox News’ Neil Cavuto:

“Bob, do you view this rhetoric as pro-labor, anti-business, what?” Cavuto asked Murray.

Absolutely not,” Murray responded. “I view it as anti-American. These people should—are misleading the American worker then they talk about jobs. These are the people advocating draconian global warming conditions that are going to drive American jobs to foreign countries and raise electric rates for everybody on fixed incomes.”

Murray is chairman of Murray Energy Co., an owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine, whose PAC has donated to the worst of the worst politicians: Sens. George Allen of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Rep. Katherine Harris of Florida. It also gave to Ohio Republican Reps. Deborah Pryce and Patrick Tiberi, and California Rep. Richard Pombo. The committee did not give to any Democrats during the same period, Federal Election Commission (FEC) records show.

In 2004, Murray gave $15,000 of his own money to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, and he gave $10,000 in 2006. Among other donations in the last election cycle, he gave $2,000 to Ohio Republican Sen. Mike DeWine’s unsuccessful re-election campaign. (CampaignMoney lists the donations here.)

Murray embodies the failed ideology of Bush & Co., one which operates as follows: Reject government solutions to problems like workplace safety and health that private corporations refuse to address. When disaster happens, throw around baseless attacks. And never, ever, take the blame.

Murray is blaming the mine cave-in on an earthquake, a claim scientists at the National Earthquake Information Center say is not supported by the available evidence.

The Sago explosion, which killed 12 coal miners in January 2006, marked the start of the deadliest year in the nation’s coal mines since 1996. Forty-seven coal miners died, an increase of 210 percent over 2005. The rise in deaths sparked Congress—under the Democrats—to pass the first significant improvement in mine safety laws in decades. Congress promises to further strengthen safety—and lawmakers need to do so, fast. Already, 10 miners have been killed this year. Nearly all of the 57 miners killed in the past year and half were in nonunion mines.

It’s no coincidence U.S. mine deaths skyrocketed so horrifically during the Bush administration. Bush’s MSHA allowed its mine inspection force to drop from 634 inspectors in 1997 to 584 in 2005.

Bush response to last year’s mine deaths by nominating Richard Sticker, a former Massey Coal Co. executive, to head MSHA. The injury rates at coal mines managed by Stickler from 1989 to 1996 were double the national average, according to statistics assembled by the Mine Workers before Stickler’s appointment to head the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety. When the Senate refused to confirm Stickler’s nomination, Bush used a recess appointment to put him in charge of MSHA.

Stickler has promised to enforce safety rules and MSHA now is adding more inspectors, but union safety advocates are taking a wait-and-see attitude on MSHA’s vows to crack down on safety violators.

The Pump Handle, a safety blog, offers some questions reporters can ask Murray, including what type of post-accident communication system was installed as required by federal law?

Workers at union mines generally have much better safety and health protections, and they want to join the UMWA. But coal companies continue to be among the most brutal in rejecting workers’ attempts to form unions. Peabody, the nation’s largest private coal company, systematically closed its union mines and replaced them with nonunion mines over the past 15 years, according to the UMWA. Yet Peabody made $426 million on sales of $3.8 billion between January and September 2006, according to USA Today, compared with the $260 million in sales it earned in 2005. Peabody is vigorously fighting a drive by its nonunion miners who have launched a Justice at Peabody campaign to win a voice at work with UMWA and the strong safety rights a UMWA contract requires.

After Peabody’s systematic de-unionization campaign, only about 30 percent of its operations are unionized. Says nonunion Peabody miner Donna Green:

This job is hard on your body. We’ve got 26 year-olds that are hurting bad. What are they going to be like in another 30 years….They’re going to kick you out and say you can’t earn a paycheck, you’re gone. They can afford to give us a pension. They can afford to give us health care. Their union mines have that. There’s no reason we can’t have what the other coal miners have.

As coal miner John Cox puts it:

It’s not right what Peabody has done.

The same can be said for any coal mine owner that rejects the workplace safety needed to keeping miners safe—and alive.

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