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WALSH: A tragedy no place for bluster

Published August 9, 2007 2:18 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2007, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

You can't tell Robert Murray anything.

There was no earthquake at Crandall Canyon mine. So-called "retreat" mining actually might have something to do with the collapse. Global warming isn't just Al Gore's "goofiness." This is not about the politics of coal; it's about six guys trapped 1,500 feet underground.

Shut up. Hire a public relations consultant. And soon.

Murray, the CEO and president of Murray Energy Corp., has been described alternately as a "courtly gentleman" by a CNN reporter and a "crazy uncle" in The Wall Street Journal.

After two days of watching the guy ramble and bluster his way through news briefings outside his mine's gates in Huntington, I think it's somewhere closer to the latter.

In the vacuum left by unsuccessful and time-consuming rescue attempts, Murray has become the story. He fingers the news media. But he has only himself to blame. When you give reporters this much fodder, they're going to write it up. And "The Bob Murray Show" is a rich vein.

Wednesday's performance was much more sympathetic than Tuesday's - and blessedly more brief. Rather than starting with a rant against Congress and unions and Associated Press reporters, Murray mentioned the miners and their families - hardy but fragile folk caught in an agony of waiting, whose "lives are in front of them," as he put it. He didn't order helicopters from the sky, but he gave Sheriff Lamar Guymon permission to let traffic pass.

Someone obviously got to the eccentric 67-year-old coal miner-turned-baron.

"Remember, there are only two concerns here: the welfare of the families and getting the trapped miners out as quickly as possible," he said.

If only he would follow his own advice.

When reporters started questioning his version of events, he whipped into full obstruction mode Wednesday. University of Utah scientists and federal geologists doubt whether an earthquake caused a portion of the mine to cave in early Monday. And the Utah Geological Survey is expected to release a report later this month that documents common, but risky, retreat mining at Crandall Canyon.

But Murray still pushes his earthquake theory and insists retreat mining has "absolutely nothing to do with what is happening to these men."

To be fair, he is under a lot of stress right now. But it's not just this mine accident that summons up his inner blowhard. According to the Lexington Herald- Journal, he threatened a federal safety regulator by dropping Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell's name and a reference to his wife, U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. And on Fox News, he called Hillary Clinton, and anyone else who defends workers' rights, "anti-American."

A fourth-generation coal miner, Murray mortgaged his house to buy his first mine 20 years ago. He now owns 11 mines in five states. They generate $800 million in sales annually. And their safety record is mixed. At Crandall Canyon, federal inspectors have issued 324 citations since 2004.

He likes to say he takes his safety record "to bed with me every night." And this is his "first major accident." He's probably not sleeping well these days.

Murray has a silent partner in this mess: Intermountain Power Agency. And they're staying silent, even as they watch Murray dig himself deeper.

IPA, a cooperative of 23 Utah cities that own a coal-burning power plant in Delta, shares half-ownership with Murray in the Crandall Canyon mine and West Ridge mine.

"There are better minds on this," a spokesman said. "We're deferring all comments to these other individuals for now."

I can only assume they mean someone other than Murray. Unfortunately, he speaks louder and longer than more temperate officials from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. They can't really stop him.

But somebody should.

walsh@sltrib.com