Published: Friday, August 10, 2007
Owner defends mine company's safety record
The 2006 injury rate at all of Murray Energy's mines was below the national average.
CLEVELAND (AP) Robert Murray, chairman of the Ohio-based company that co-owns the Utah coal mine where six workers are trapped, has campaigned to improve mine safety, yet his companies have incurred millions of dollars in fines over the last 18 months.
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 the Crandall Canyon mine, where it wasn't known Wednesday whether the miners were alive more than two days after an initial cave-in, the safety record was remarkable, 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.
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., worked for MSHA for 24 years 11 as an inspector and 13 as an instructor at the National Mine Academy. He now serves as an expert witness.
Dial 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 a little over $3 million in fines dating back to 1999. Records show Galatia is contesting a large number of the fines.
For example, on June 4, MSHA inspectors cited and fined the mine $54,000 for violating regulations on the accumulation of combustible materials. The high fine suggested to Dial that there was a large quantity of combustible material and a chance of a spark that could be present to set off an explosion.
Failing to take action
Dial also noted 21 violations so far in 2007 where shutdown orders were given in particular areas of the mine after mine managers failed to take action after notice of a violation.
"What that's telling me is that they have supervisors there who are knowing that violations are occurring and not doing anything about it," Dial said.
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.
There was no response to telephone and e-mail messages left Wednesday and Thursday to Murray Energy for comment on the company's safety record.
When 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 angrily: "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, noting that the rate of injuries in 2006 at all of Murray Energy's mines was less than the national average.
The United Mine Workers of America, which represents workers at Murray's Powhatan No. 6 mine in Belmont County in eastern Ohio, has had its differences with Murray and ran a campaign against him in 2001, accusing him of not holding up his end of their contract, spokesman Phil Smith said.
As far as the safety record of Murray's mines, Smith said, "Generally speaking, it's 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 which 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."
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