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Gehrke: Coal exec Bob Murray's attacks on John Oliver shouldn't silence critical voices

Published June 28, 2017 10:06 am
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2017, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What, you might ask, could I possibly have in common with John Oliver?

Well, aside from both of us looking like we could have been hatched from eggs laid by an ostrich impregnated by the Keebler elf, we've both had the pleasure of being targets of coal baron Bob Murray's hair-trigger legal team.

Oliver, the host of HBO's "Last Week Tonight," is being sued for a brilliantly scorching critique of Bully Bob, the owner of the largest private coal company in the country.



The piece featured footage of Murray ranting in TV interviews that President Barack Obama was destroying America, "is an outlaw," and he prays that his "evil agenda will be overcome," before pointing out — correctly — that the decline in mining jobs is due primarily to competition from low-cost natural gas and renewable energy.

Oliver skewers President Donald Trump for promising to bring back mining jobs and the administration's inflated assertions that 50,000 jobs have already come back. The real number is 1,300.

But what really got Murray Energy upset is highlighting Murray's behavior at Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine collapse that killed six miners nearly a decade ago, when Murray insisted repeatedly that an earthquake caused the collapse and when he was banned from family meetings after yelling at distressed family members and reportedly making some young children cry.

The lawsuit is straight out of the Murray playbook.

In the past 15 years, he has sued journalists from the The New York Times, Huffington Post, The Charleston Gazette, the Akron Beacon Journal and the Chagrin Valley Times in Ohio. He's also brought suit against the United Mine Workers, the good-government group Public Citizen, and has threatened the editor of Coal Age and Engineering & Mining Journal, and a former Penn State University professor.

On occasion, the litter of lawsuits has yielded apologies, but the overwhelming majority have been tossed out of court.

When The Salt Lake Tribune was aggressively reporting on the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine, we were the first to report that the mining practices helped cause the collapse, that Murray's company knew of the problems and risks at the mine before the collapse, and that the problems were not properly reported to federal authorities.

We were threatened again and again with litigation, but we knew all along we had this right and our editors, to their credit, backed us up.

Murray, to this day, insists an earthquake located some distance away actually caused the collapse and, in his lawsuit, cites a study by University of Utah seismologists to support his assertion.

The facts, however, are not really in dispute by anyone except Murray, who still owns one coal mine in Utah, Lila Canyon in Carbon County, employing 139.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration's investigation blamed "grossly deficient" engineering, a failure to report "outbursts" that signal structural problems in the mine in a timely fashion, and recommended nearly $1.9 million in fines — eventually settling for $1.15 million.

A congressional investigation concluded that mine managers concealed information about structural problems, that the accident was preventable and recommended possible criminal charges. In 2012, the company that operated the mine pleaded guilty to two criminal charges.

And the U. study that Murray points to as proof there was an earthquake? Well, it doesn't really say what he says it does. At all.

Tex Kubacki, author of the study, said it's not the first time Murray has misrepresented his work.

What the study did conclude was that the epicenter of the event was inside the mine workings, 750 feet from where mining was taking place, and not seven miles away on Joes Valley Fault as Murray contends in the suit. The mining, he says, caused the collapse, not an earthquake.

None of that changes the fact that it was the risky mining that put profit ahead of safety and led to the death of six miners and, later, three rescue workers.

There is a larger issue at play here than an old man with more lawyers than sense. That is he is just one of a string of millionaires and billionaires who are continually attacking the independent press and the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Brian Knappenberger's documentary "Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press" details how internet billionaire Peter Thiel secretly funded retired wrestler Hulk Hogan's lawsuit in a vindictive crusade to put Gawker out of business, and succeeded, and how Las Vegas gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson bought up the Las Vegas Review-Journal and drove out journalists who were doing their jobs.

And, of course, there's Donald Trump, whose Nixonian disdain for the media and disregard for a free press have taken the assault to the next level.

In the face of these attacks, we need a strong, free press and we need people — like John Oliver — who won't be intimidated and who will keep speaking truth to power.

Otherwise, Murray and his kind will keep treating the First Amendment like one of Murray's played-out coal mines, hacking away at the underpinnings until it, too, inevitably collapses.

gehrke@sltrib.com

Twitter: @RobertGehrke

 

 

 

 

 

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