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Utah Mine Owner: Troubling Safety Record, Useful Political Clout

HuffingtonPost.com   First Posted: 03/28/08 03:44 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 01:10 PM ET

In 2003, when safety inspectors ordered the owner of a Utah coal mine where six workers have been trapped for more than a week to shut down one of his Ohio operations because of repeated safety problems, local press reports say he did not hesitate to flex his political muscle to get the inspectors off his back.

West Virginia Public Radio reporter Jeff Young filed a story at the time that said Murray Energy Corp. CEO Bob Murray had a meeting in Morgantown, W. Va. with Tim Thompson, then a district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Young obtained notes from the meeting which showed Murray threatening to have MSHA employees fired.

"I will have your jobs. They are gone. The clock is ticking," Young quotes Murray as saying at the meeting.

The notes then go on to say Murray dropped the name of a pair of powerful Republicans in order to underscore his own political clout.

"Mitch McConnell calls me one of the five finest men in America, and last time I checked he was sleeping with your boss," Murray told the inspectors, referring to the senior GOP senator from Kentucky. The quote was repeated in an Oct. 2006 Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader article on McConnell's political influence.

McConnell - the Republican leader in the Senate - is married to Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees MSHA. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, McConnell has received $176,800 in campaign donations from mining interests since 2001.

Thompson was later transferred to an office away from Murray's mines, and retired from MSHA in 2006.

The Bush Administration denied that Murray played a role in Thomspon's reassignment.

Murray has personally donated $115,050 to Republican political candidates over the past three election cycles. He has given another $724,500 to the GOP over the past ten years through political action committees connected to his businesses.

"The ironic part is I am a Republican," Thompson told the Herald-Leader's John Cheves in October 2006. "But I don't think you should bring up politics in a meeting like that, involving safety."

A belt foreman at the mine in question - Powhatan No. 6 in Belmont County, Ohio - bled to death in 2001 after a conveyor belt had ripped off his arm.

A judge later ruled that the company had not been negligent in that case.

Murray's safety record has come under fire at several other mines he owns through at least a half dozen mining companies.

Mines owned by Murray's companies produce more than 20 million tons of coal annually, according to a tally by the Cleveland Plain-Dealer. His companies include Ohio Valley Coal Co., Maple Creek Mining, Inc., KenAmerican Resources, Inc., American Coal Co. and PennAmerican Coal.

Robert Gehrke at the Salt Lake Tribune reported over the weekend that Murray's Galatia mine in southern Illinois has racked up 2,787 violations over the past two years. MSHA has proposed more than $2.4 million in fines at Galatia, according to Gehrke's reporting.

Another Murray-owned company - Ken American Resources - and four of its top employees were convicted in a federal court in Kentucky of conspiring to violate federal mine safety rules.

A judge later threw out part of the verdict, but the company was ordered to pay $306,000 in fines, an amount federal prosecutors considered too lenient.

Speaking to The Huffington Post last week, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America labor union - which does not represent workers at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah - called Murray a "volatile" personality who routinely opposed increased safety regulations.

"Anything that will cost Bob Murray any extra money he will find reason to find fault with it," said Phil Smith, the union's communications director.

Read More: Arianna Huffington on the media's misguided coverage of Bob Murray and the Utah mine collapse.

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