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PRICE - Crandall Canyon mine co-owner Robert Murray began telling nearly 300 workers Saturday they will lose their jobs because he plans to shutter the Tower mine.
Murray began what miners say he described as 270 temporary layoffs Saturday afternoon. Miner Jared Simms, a 32-year-old father of four from Helper, said Murray told miners the Tower mine would remain closed "until I can make it safe."
Miners say Murray met with about 50 people during the afternoon shift at the West Ridge mine, apologizing for the disaster at Crandall Canyon mine. But he also said it has become impossible for him to do business in Utah.
Simms said Murray told the miners some of the Tower employees would be transferred to West Ridge while others would have the chance to work in Murray Energy's coal mines in Ohio and Illinois. Simms quoted Murray as saying the company would pay for the miners' way back to the Midwest and for their board in a bunkhouse, but that miners would have to pay their own way back to Utah if they wished to visit their families during their one week off after working three weeks.
Murray also asked miners not to tell their wives or families about the layoffs until he told the other miners.
After Murray's statement, Simms said, West Ridge employees went outside and awaited word from mine general manager Darrell Leonard, who told them individually which ones were fired and which ones weren't.
"I walked in and he said 'you're laid off,' " Simms said. "I walked downstairs, handed my rescuer's [breathing apparatus] to the bosses downstairs, grabbed all my stuff and was told not to tell anybody about this meeting until 9 a.m. [today], including my wife," Simms said.
"How can I come home early with all my work stuff and not tell my wife?" he wondered. "How am I supposed to tell my kids I don't have a job now. How am I supposed to do all this, keep my mouth shut for 16 hours. That's what he wanted me to do. I'm not very happy about it."
In the meeting to announce the layoffs, Simms said, Murray lambasted Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. for the criticism he has lobbed at Murray and his mining operation. He also criticized The Salt Lake Tribune for its coverage. Murray also railed against Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who has asked for federal documents related to the Crandall Canyon mine.
In an Aug. 22 letter to Huntsman, Murray said miners' jobs could be in jeopardy.
" . . . It is unfortunate that I must be distracted from our rescue efforts to write this private letter to you, but, if you persist in your statements and your course of action, you governor, are going to jeopardize the 700 jobs in Carbon and Emery County," he wrote. "I cannot maintain them alone, and I definitely cannot do it if I'm going to be your whipping boy."
Murray declined to discuss the layoffs with The Tribune Saturday night. Murray owns the Tower mine, and co-owns the West Ridge mine in Carbon County and the Crandall Canyon mine where Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Alonso Hernandez, Juan Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez have been trapped since an Aug. 6 collapse.
The Tower mine has leased reserves of about 19.3 million tons, according to the latest Utah Coal Report, which was released by the Utah Geological Survey last week. This year, about two years after the Pinnacle portion of the mine was closed, the Aberdeen section was expected to yield about 1.8 million tons of coal.
About 215 miners were expected to be on the payroll to do the job, according to the report, which is based on projections submitted by companies to the state.
But the report also hinted at some trouble at the mine - basically getting to the coal safely. One issue is the coal seam's depth, now about 2,800 feet below the mountain's surface and planned to be another 400 feet deeper, "deeper than any longwall machine has ever successfully been used in the United States.
In addition, the Coal Report notes: "To mitigate "bounce" problems, large barriers of coal are left between longwall panels for additional support." The mine also has ventilation problems that were forcing a decrease in production this year.
At the same time, Murray Energy has secured leases on federal land for about 16.5 million tons of coal. To mine it, the company would have to mine below the old mine workings of another mine.
Work is expected to begin on that in 2010 on this Kenilworth seam. And longwall mining was to begin in 2012.
Brad King, a Democrat who represents Price in the state House, said he had been told the Murray Energy Corp. had assembled a team, including company specialists from the East, to evaluate the mining plans at the company's three Utah mines. The Mining Safety and Health Administration was also being consulted, he said.
* JUDY FAHYS contributed to this report.