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Utah Mine Owner Defends Safety Process

Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., speaks at a news conference Wednesday after taking two family members of the trapped miners into the Utah mine to see rescue operations.
Jeff Brady, NPR
Bob Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corp., speaks at a news conference Wednesday after taking two family members of the trapped miners into the Utah mine to see rescue operations.

Robert Murray is the son of an Ohio coal miner. He is a successful businessman with 11 mines in five states. He also has a reputation for being outspoken and provocative, and that is how he was in a nationally televised news conference this week.

During a sometimes rambling address, he challenged reports that his workers had been "retreat mining" at the time of the accident. Retreat mining is a permitted, but potentially dangerous, way to mine. Workers remove pillars of coal from a distance, and then let the roof fall in.

"The area where these men are is entirely surrounded by solid, firm, strong pillars of coal. There was no retreat mining in the immediate vicinity," Murray said at a news conference this week.

But Murray kept going. He attacked news agencies and reporters by name, and then he turned on the people quoted in their stories.

"Number one, I wish you would take the word retreat mining out of your vocabulary. Those were words invented by Davitt McAteer, Oppegard, who are lackies for the United Mine Workers, and officials at the United Mine Workers, who would like to organize this coal mine.

McAteer is a former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Oppegard is Tony Oppegard. He used to work as Kentucky's top mine safety prosecutor. He now represents coal miners in safety cases.

He and McAteer are both respected miner advocates with decades of experience.

But Murray says their real purpose was "to damage Murray Energy, Utah American, and the United States coal industry for their own motives.

"You weren't told this in the previous disasters last year in America, but now journalists, I'm telling you how it really is," he said at the news conference.

People who know Murray are not surprised by his diatribe.

"Frankly, I wasn't surprised, because I know Mr. Murray's pretty combative," says Oppegard. He says he has never met Murray, but knows him by reputation.

Five years ago, Murray was accused of bullying federal mine safety officials at meeting. He was upset about what he saw as over-zealous enforcement.

In notes, federal officials who attended the meeting, quoted Murray as saying: "You picked the fight. I'll have your job."

One official concluded his notes, saying "Murray lost control all together. Meeting ended."

When West Virginia Public Radio reported the story, Murray declined an interview.

Oppegard says Murray's style is unusual.

"He's an atypical coal operator in the sense that he's outspoken and he's confrontational. Which most coal operators are not. Most coal operators don't want their names in the paper, they want to operate under the radar," Oppegard says.

And if Murray feels aggrieved, he is willing to use the courts. He has filed defamation suits against the United Mine Workers and an Ohio newspaper, The Akron Beacon Journal.

After the newspaper settled, Murray told fellow coal operators he filed the suit to show them they could "stand up and fight."

He began building his business nearly twenty years ago with a lone mine in Ohio. NPR's Noah Adams interviewed him back in 1990.

"I graduated from a high school thirteen miles from this coal mine, so I think the Lord has a plan for us here and we've been able to grow from nearly 200 employees here to nearly 400," Murray told Adams.

Today, he has mines in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Illinois and more than 3,000 workers.

Mike Carey heads the Ohio Coal Association. He says Murray is well respected in his home state.

"I've never seen a person more committed to the safety of his workers than Bob Murray," Carey says.

But the safety record of Murray's companies has come under fire elsewhere.

Four years ago, a federal jury in Kentucky found one of Murrays' companies and four of its managers guilty of conspiring to ignore coal dust limits and cover up violations. The company was fined $300,000.

Murray could face more safety questions in Utah. He insists his workers were not retreat mining, but federal safety officials say mine maps show the area where the men are missing was being used for just that purpose.

Bob Friend is the federal safety agency's deputy assistant secretary.

"As we understand it, they were taking pillars or removing pillars," Friend says.

Right now, the agency and Murray's company are focused on trying to reach the miners.

Once they have accomplished that, the focus will turn to investigating what caused the accident.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.
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