Fallout • Prayerful coal baron claims president's "war on coal" forced his hand.
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In response to President Barack Obama's re-election Tuesday, coal magnate Robert Murray laid off 102 miners the next day at his West Ridge coal mine in Carbon County.
Then he offered a "solemn prayer" for America to protect it from what he calls Obama's "war on coal."
"Dear Lord, the American people have made their choice," began the scripture-quoting prayer that Murray, in a news release, said he delivered Wednesday afternoon to 50 staff members of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp., whose Utah subsidiary runs West Ridge.
About that time, pink slips were being given to at least 40 percent of West Ridge's workforce at the mine in the Book Cliffs south of Price.
The American people "have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals [sic] of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance," Murray continued.
"The takers outvoted the producers," he added, turning to a biblical quotation before concluding, "Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corporation for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build.
"We ask for your guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise," Murray said. "Amen."
Murray was thrust into the public spotlight in August 2007, when nine men were killed and six were injured in a pair of implosions at another of his Utah coal mines, Crandall Canyon. Murray Energy subsidiaries paid $1.45 million in fines this year to resolve criminal and civil cases spawned by that disaster.
When asked about the latest layoffs, Murray's spokesman sent a pair of news releases, the second containing the prayer. News of the workforce reductions sent an economic shock through Carbon County.
"I've been asked 20 times this morning, 'What are you going to do about it?' It's sickening," said Joe Piccolo, mayor of Price, the county seat.
"When you knock 100 jobs off the top, it sets the pace for the rest of the community," he added. "People hold their pearls close to their chest. They don't invest. They don't go anywhere. It makes a tough situation when there might not have needed to be one."
Murray said the layoffs were forced upon him by Obama's "war on coal," which has cut production nationally by a third this year and is targeting 204 coal-fired power plants for closure by 2014.
"Because our coal markets are being so drastically reduced," he said, "there is nowhere to sell our coal, and when we can, the market prices are far lower. Without markets, there can be no coal mines and no coal jobs."
Tim Wagner, the Sierra Club's national representative in Utah, said Murray's "fear of a 'war on coal' is largely a figment of his imagination." Rather than being a victim of Obama's policies, he said, coal's market performance has been hurt primarily by competition from natural gas and alternative energy.
"For him to lay off 102 people is his decision only," Wagner said. "For him to blame somebody else is just pure hyperbole and very poor business practice."
Mike Dalpiaz, the United Mine Workers of America's longtime leader in the state, noted that Murray has laid off miners before the holidays several times since entering the Utah market in 2006.
"It's just a week or two early this time. He's sad because the bogeyman got back into office," Dalpiaz said, chuckling repeatedly while reading Murray's prayer. "He's a holy man, isn't he? Good God almighty. Absolutely disgusting. I hate to break the news to this guy, but where he's going, he won't be seeing the Lord or any pearly gates."
Piccolo was not laughing as he contemplated the impact of the mine layoffs in Carbon County. "They rumble through the community like the ripples that go out when you throw a rock into a pond," he said, first through trucking companies that have no coal to haul, then through equipment and parts suppliers.
"That's about 500 related jobs around the community," Piccolo said. "We have to pull our bootstraps up, think out of the box and find ways for these people to earn a living."
Murray's actions at West Ridge appear to be hurting a constituency that largely agrees with his political point.
After all, voters this week picked Republican Jerry Anderson to represent much of Utah's coal country in the Legislature, electing him to a House seat held by Democrats for 60 years.
Anderson said he was helped by supporters who posted signs across coal country saying "Vote coal get rid of Obama."
Tribune reporter Lee Davidson contributed to this article.
Murray Energy's West Ridge coal mine in Carbon County was one of 13 mines nationally subjected to spot inspections in September by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Ever since the Upper Big Branch mine explosion in West Virginia that killed 29 miners in 2010, MSHA has conducted extra inspections at mines "that merit increased agency attention and enforcement due to their poor compliance history or particular compliance concerns." West Ridge and the other mines targeted in September had prior violations involving dust control and ventilation.
Inspectors cited the company for 11 violations, five deemed "significant and substantial."
Source: Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration