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Murray offers mixed message on coal

| Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012, 12:46 a.m.

You may recall the name Robert E. Murray and his ties with the Mid-Mon Valley starting in the mid-1990s and lasting about 10 years.

If you forgot the guy, good for you.

As a reminder, he's the self-styled bigwig from Ohio and independent coal operator who purchased the Maple Creek Mine that U.S. Steel Mining Co. closed in Carroll and Fallowfield townships in 1994, along with a processing plant in New Eagle.

He reopened it a year later, after United Mine Workers union members agreed to a seven-year contract that paid $3 an hour less than peers in other mines.

Three days before Christmas 2002, Murray closed the 44-year-old Maple Creek Mine, putting nearly 500 people out of work, albeit some were subsequently employed by his fledging long-wall mining company, UMCO Energy Inc., until regulators shut it down in 2006.

I bring up his name because Time magazine devoted four pages of its current issue to an article titled “Coal, Hard Truths,” which features Murray and his unfounded warning of “permanent destruction to America” if Obama wins re-election as President.

A photo shows the 72-year-old Murray standing in front of a “gob pile,” a small mountain of coal spoils left to mar the landscape.

It was disappointing to see a national magazine of such stature give Murray a bully pulpit to represent himself as a credible face of the coal industry and as a Mr. Nice Guy.

Then on Monday, Murray was interviewed on CNN, where he declared that coal miners “want to work with honor and dignity.”

I hurriedly wrote down what he said; I wanted to quote him accurately.

I knew it would raise a howl from hundreds of former Murray employees and their families in the Mid-Mon Valley.

In 1998, I interviewed Murray after he defiantly denied Pennsylvania Turnpike officials access to his property and the Maple Creek Mine. They wanted to establish benchmarks in order to compensate for damages that might occur while building 1½ miles of the Mon-Fayette Expressway across his land.

I found him to be arrogant and convinced that he was right while everybody else was wrong and out to get him.

Murray sought $100 million in damages from the turnpike for a right-of-way, claiming blasting and construction would leave his mine unprofitable and unsafe despite remedial efforts by highway engineers.

He filed a total of five lawsuits. Most if not all were tossed by the courts. The legal impasse delayed construction of the 17-mile segment between I-70, Fallowfield, and Route 51, Large, by a couple of years and added millions of dollars to project costs.

Murray left a far more hurtful and lasting mark here in other ways as a result of his coal-mining enterprises, the demise of which he always blamed on the state Department of Environmental Protection, U.S. Bureau of Mines and other regulatory agencies that he openly despised then as now.

Maple Creek Mine under Murray was marked by strikes and labor skirmishes, suspensions and firings, violations of work and safety rules, lost-time injuries and two fatal accidents. Parts of the mine were ordered shut down at times. Unacceptable levels of methane gas were reported.

In early 2004, when UMCO was allowed to begin long-wall mining under one Maple Creek tributary, subsidence occurred, cracking the streambed and draining the water. The company argued it was OK to “destroy” streams as long as it corrected the damage with repairs.

You get the message.

Murray has spent, donated and raised millions of dollars fighting unions and regulations and supporting Republican candidates who support him.

Based on yard signs scattered around the area and declaring, “Save Coal, Fire Obama,” a number of you apparently side with Murray.

Profit and power are his concern, not necessarily coal miners who do, indeed, “want to work with honor and dignity.”


Thought du jour: “Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed.” –Ghandi

Joe Grata is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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