The chairman of the company that co-owns the Utah coal mine where six workers are trapped has campaigned to improve mine safety — but his companies have incurred millions of dollars in fines over the past 18 months.
Robert Murray’s Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp. has 19 mines in five states that vary widely in the number of fines, citations and injuries, according to an Associated Press review of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration records.
At Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine, where the fate of the miners was unknown after a cave-in Monday, the safety record was remarkably good, said R. Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at Penn State University.
“The injury rate for the last four years has been significantly below the national average,” Grayson said.
But a mine in southern Illinois owned by Murray subsidiary American Coal Co. has had a significant number of recent violations.
'Not going for the safety'
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.”
Bruce Dial, owner of Dial Mine Safety, a consulting company near Charlotte, N.C., said the high number of fines, $1.46 million so far in 2007, indicates the mine is not taking the necessary steps to remedy problems.
The mine has accumulated more than $3 million in fines dating back to 1999. Records show Galatia is contesting many of the fines.
On June 4, MSHA inspectors cited and fined the mine $54,000 for violating regulations on the accumulation of combustible materials.
The fine suggested to Dial, who worked for MSHA for 24 years and now testifies in cases as an expert witness, that there was a large quantity of combustible material and a chance of a spark setting off an explosion.
Dial also noted 21 violations so far in 2007 where shutdown orders were given in areas of the mine after mine managers failed to act after they were notified of a violation.
On July 20, the records show, the mine was again cited for failure to prevent the accumulation of combustible materials. The coding of the violation denotes that supervisors were aware of the problem but had not done anything about it. A fine has not yet been assessed.
Official defends safety record
Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy, defended the company’s safety record Thursday in Huntington, Utah, site of the Crandall Canyon mine.
“Every mine has violations and our record here, the violations we have received, have not been anything out of the ordinary — dust on the belt rollers, things of that nature, just typical violations and, relative to the safety of this mine, it’s a safe mine. All of our mines are safe mines,” he said.
When Robert Murray testified before the Senate committee on Environment and Public Works on June 28, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., questioned his mine safety record.
Murray responded: “You’re flat-out wrong. That information came from your friends at the United Mine Workers and the union. It is not fair.”
Referring to the mine safety record, he said, “I take it with me to bed. I resent you bringing this in.”
Four days later, Murray sent a letter to Boxer, saying the rate of injuries in 2006 at all of Murray Energy’s mines was less than the national average.
Par for the course?
The United Mine Workers of America, which represents workers at Murray’s Powhatan No. 6 mine in Belmont County in eastern Ohio, ran a campaign against him in 2001, accusing him of not holding up his end of their contract, spokesman Phil Smith said.
He said the safety record of Murray’s mines is generally “not particularly better or particularly worse than any other mine operator in the county.”
The National Mining Association, where Murray sits on the board of directors, credited Murray with pushing for safety, including backing the federal Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act passed last year. It called for additional mine rescue teams, extra emergency packs and other materials.
“In my experience Mr. Murray has been in the forefront of efforts to improve mine safety legislation,” association spokesman Luke Popovich said. “He’s certainly been visible in our association-wide efforts to improve mine safety at underground coal mines.”