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A Squirrel Chats with Crandall Mine Owner (and White Knights Talk Backward)

Photo: Earl Dotter  

Crandall Canyon Mine owner Robert Murray doesn’t just yell and wave at helicopters to shoo them away from his mine, where six men have been trapped since Monday. Nor does he stop at viciously attacking leaders of the Mine Workers (UMWA), who don’t even represent the workers at his mine, and calls efforts to ensure health and safety in the mining industry “anti-American.”

He talks to squirrels. Or, at least, he thinks they talk to him.

A 2001 article in the UMWA Journal describes how miners at Ohio’s Maple Creek and Powhatan No. 6 mines frequently heard owner/operator Robert Murray recount his squirrel story.

The way Murray tells it, he had just been let go in 1987 as CEO of North American Coal Company and was feeling extremely down about the whole situation. At home one day, Murray was sitting on his back porch, contemplating his future, when he was approached by a squirrel. Murray says the squirrel hopped up next to him, looked him square in the eye and said “Bob Murray, you should be operating your very own mines.” Unfortunately for UMWA miners, this seemingly intelligent rodent wasn’t too keen on fairness, so it neglected to add the words “and make sure you treat your workers the way you would want to be treated.”

Saul/Paul had his revelation on the road to Damascus. Murray, via a furry rodent.

It’s unimaginable to think of being trapped in a pitch-black, ice cold (or is it suffocatingly hot?) hell-hole of a collapsed mine for even an hour. But the six men in the Crandall Canyon coal mine have been buried beneath 1,500 feet of solid rock for five days.

Murray has exhibited a striking disregard for safety. At the award-winning MineSafetyWatch blog, Kathy Snyder, a mine safety and health expert, documented with horror how Murray and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)—against federal regulations—allowed reporters into the mine.

All I could think of was: What was Robert Murray thinking when he allowed these non-rescue personnel into the mine? What was MSHA thinking to allow non-rescue personnel into this mine? I was stunned. CNN reported they were at the mine rescue “face,” a 30 minute, three-mile ride inside the mine, where rescuers are removing the debris trying to get to these trapped men.

Then, while the reporters were filming, (and I don’t know if the family
members were there at the same time), a severe bump occurred physically
shaking the mine, crew and machinery—scaring everyone. As the CNN reporter said, “Frankly, this was very scary. I have to tell you that I have been in Afghanistan and Iraq and that was scary… this was very scary in another way.”

Mr. Murray later claimed that the area in which the film crew and families were allowed to tour was “safe.” Mr. Murray said he’s in charge, and he has invited the family members to go back into the mine this afternoon. Mr. Murray also said that MSHA approved of the *news reporters and two family members, who have mining experience, going into the mine. (*The news reporters do not have mining experience).

Crandall Canyon Mine, which is owned by Murray Energy Co., has received 325 citations by federal mine inspectors since January 2004, according to federal MSHA online records. Of those, 116 were what the government considered “significant and substantial,” meaning they are likely to cause injury. Yet by industry standards, that number of citations is considered “below average.” Citing an Associated Press review of MSHA records, Forbes says Murray Energy has 19 mines in five states that vary widely in the number of fines, citations and injuries—but in total, mines owned by Murray have incurred millions of dollars in fines over the past 18 months. Forbes notes one Murray mine has received an especially high number of safety violations.

…a mine in southern Illinois owned by Murray subsidiary American Coal Co. has had a significant number of recent violations. The Galatia mine, which has about 850 workers and produced 7.2 million tons of coal in 2006, has 869 violations so far this year, leading one mining expert to believe the company is “just going for the production and not going for the safety.”

According to The Washington Post, Democratic Reps. George Miller and Lynn Woolsey, who chair House committees that oversee labor and workforce issues, have urged the Labor Department to take over the spokesman role from Murray, saying his statements do “not meet [the] standard” expected at such emergencies. Murray has used the spotlight to:

  • Deny reports that a type of mining called retreat mining, that many safety experts warn adds danger to an already dangerous underground workplace, was being used at the Utah mine. But federal safety officials confirm retreat mining has been used at Crandall Creek.
  • Dispute scientists who say that seismographic readings at the time of the collapse came from the magnitude of the collapse, not an earthquake that caused the collapse.
  • Attack reporters and accuse them of posing questions provided by of UMWA.

As I write, news reports have been confirmed that three coal mine construction workers were killed today at Indiana mine while working on 600-foot airshaft under construction. That makes 13 coal mine deaths this year. Forty-seven coal miners died in 2006, an increase of 210 percent over 2005, death rates that coincide with the dwindling number of mine inspectors under the Bush administration.

Rep. Miller has made Crandall Canyon’s emergency rescue plans available here. In a June 2007 letter to Crandall Canyon managers, MSHA informed them to immediately implement the rescue plans. We will soon find out if they did.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell