Utah mine disaster yields frenetic frontman
He’s a bulldog in a 5-foot-11-inch frame, bellowing about earthquakes, global warming, helicopter noise and traffic on national TV as six of his miners remain trapped underground.
Bob Murray, though, prefers another description for himself: underdog.
A fourth-generation miner who grew up poor in the hills of southeastern Ohio, Murray chose mining over medical school and says he has the scars — which he readily displays — that come from years of toiling underground.
He considers himself a simple miner, despite rising through the industry to become chairman of the nation’s 12th-largest coal company, Murray Energy Corp., of Cleveland.
What he has become this week is the very public and complex face of the nation’s latest mine disaster.
Murray’s company is part-owner of Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine, where six workers were buried 1,500 feet down in a cave-in early Monday. Murray, 67, was working in Montana when he received word of the collapse. He hopped on a private jet and was on the scene within hours.
He has since been the main spokesman in front of the cameras, holding nothing back as he takes on scientists, the media and federal regulators in a way that leads some to wonder why he isn’t expending more of his considerable energy on trying to reach the miners.
The public attention focused on Murray resonates in Western Pennsylvania, where the outspoken mine owner still owns two closed mines in Washington County.
His demeanor at the Utah disaster is in keeping with his character, according to some who have dealt with Murray in this region, where his company has been involved in disputes with state and local officials over his Maple Creek and High Quality mines in Fallowfield.
“I will say this: That he’s not afraid to speak his mind. I might not agree with it, but he speaks it,” said Tim Baker, deputy administrator for occupation, health and safety with the United Mine Workers union.
Baker called Murray’s safety record at Maple Creek “problematic,” noting that he documented hundreds of citations for safety violations by federal regulators. “What really sticks out is that in a five-year period — from 1996 to 2000 — he had almost 500 safety violations a year.”
Controversies involving Murray’s operations in Western Pennsylvania included longwall mining operations at Maple Creek that caused mine subsidence damage to homes in Fallowfield. It sparked community protests in 2004.
Meanwhile, Murray’s company remains involved in a legal battle with the state Department of Environmental Protection over longwall mining in an area beneath a tributary of Maple Creek.
His company ceased underground mining at its High Quality Mine in Fallowfield in late 2004, laying off nearly 500 workers, after receiving an order from state environmental officials to do so.
The company later filed a lawsuit saying the state unfairly singled it out for its longwall mining operations, while permitting other mine operators in the region engaged in similar mining that caused overlying streams to dewater.
State Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard Labuskes heard three days of testimony in November from the mining company and experts representing Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future before upholding the DEP’s decision.
The company has since appealed the matter to Commonwealth Court, which is still taking legal briefs.
In an e-mailed response, a spokeswoman for Murray’s company said it was the firm’s policy not to comment on pending litigation.
According to Robert Ruman, information specialist with the DEP, there have been 109 environmental-related violations issued to mines owned by Murray since 1999.
He said there are four administrative orders unresolved at this time — one for disturbing a water supply, two for damage to structures and one for a permit denial for longwall mining due to potential damage to a stream.
There are two consent orders and agreements under which the mining companies have agreed to replace water supplies lost due to mining.
In Utah, Murray’s main beef has to do with the possible cause of the collapse, which he insists was triggered by a 3.9-magnitude earthquake. Government seismologists say the ground-shaking was caused not by a quake, but the cave-in itself.
Murray spent much of one news briefing Tuesday angrily defending his earthquake theory, declaring at one point: “I’m going to prove it to you.”
He then spoke of building his company from a mortgaged home and made a pitch for coal as an essential industry, while bashing global warming proposals in Congress as something that would eliminate the coal industry and “increase your electric rates four to fivefold.”
At the same time, he bemoaned the frustratingly slow progress of the rescue operation and spoke with passion and determination about reaching the men. “The Lord has already decided whether they’re alive or dead. But it’s up to Bob Murray and my management to get access to them as quickly as we can.”
His combative briefing prompted Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, to comment: “It is very unfortunate that at a time when six miners remain trapped underground and rescuers … 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.”
Murray says his toughness stems from his upbringing. He recalls picking up meat bones the grocer would save for neighborhood dogs and taking them home to his mother, who made “sop” out of them.
He says he lied about his age to start working in the mines at 16 after his father, also a miner, was paralyzed on the job several years earlier. His own body, Murray said, is riddled with scars from several mining accidents, including being hit in the head with an 18-foot steel beam.
On Tuesday, Murray pulled back the collar of his shirt to reveal a thin, white scar he said he got in another mine accident. He said the scar runs “all the way from my cranium down my back.”
Murray recalls being trapped in a mine for 12 hours. “It seemed like an eternity,” he said. “When you’re in there in the dark, life goes by. There’s nothing you can do but sit there and wait. And if these folks are alive, that’s what they’re doing right now.
“I understand it.”