Don’t Get Me Started, Regulars and Shorts

Don’t Get Me Started: Acts of God or Acts of Greed?

By John deJong

by John deJong
Robert E. Murray, the operator and co-owner of the the Carbon County coal mine where six men were lost and three rescuers were killed last month, would have us believe the seismic "bumps" that caused this disaster were acts of God.

As rescue and recovery operations continue at press time, it seems like a petty distinction, but it's probably enough to let Murray sleep at night. It's tough to have the loss of nine lives on your conscience. So Murray blames God.

Murray would like us to believe unpredictable events, not the "retreat" or salvage mining methods used at the Crandall Canyon mine, took these men. I'm sure that will be Murray's first line of defense in court if any wrongful death suits stem from the tragedy. In a certain sense, he's right. If you mine 80-90% of the coal out of a seam, the roof is going to cave in sooner or later. Only God knows when.

It used to be called "natural selection." You do something stupid-like mine the last pillars of coal keeping 1,500 feet of mountain from falling on your head-and you die. Or rather, your employees die.

It's interesting to speculate on what Robert F. Murray intends to do with the profits from the Crandall Canyon mine. Buy another salvage mine? Make campaign contributions to starving politicians? (He's given $155,000 to Republicans since 2005, including $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which might explain why Senator Orrin Hatch has been such a stalwart supporter of Murray.) Pay dues to the mining industry association so it can keep a phalanx of lobbyists working the Mine Safety and Health Administration to loosen safety and health regulations?

Of course, under the Bush Administration, all the safety violation notices the mine has already received had the net effect of so much wallpaper stuck to its collapsing roof. Possibly what's most disturbing about the Crandall Canyon mine disaster is how often it's been noted that the mine's safety record is not particularly better or worse than the average coal mine.

Underground mining is dangerous, even if you're not trying to maximize profits. The longwall mining practiced in Utah amounts to pulling a four- to six-foot-thick tablecloth from under a 1,500-foot mountain. It can be done safely but it costs more and you don't get as much coal.

Perhaps Murray will put some of his coal mining profits into trust funds for the families of the miners, but all they'll probably get is the proceeds from passing the hat in a dirt-poor coal mining town. How many bake sales and car washes will the friends and families of the dead miners have to hold to provide for the dead miners' families?

In the end, it was you and I who killed those miners. It was our big-screen TVs (TV-related energy use now accounts for about 10% of all household use). That bank of incandescent basement lights left on all night. Air conditioners (America's #1 electricity consumer) set at 70 degrees when it's 100 degrees outside. It was the hundreds of ways we waste energy. Our energy-intensive lifestyle killed those miners just as surely as Robert F. Murray killed them.

Robert F. Murray is a classic vulture capitalist. He bought a 50% share of the nearly played-out Crandall Canyon mine a couple of years back. He probably got a real deal, though we'll never know because his Murray Energy is privately held. ("Privately held" is capitalist for "too good a deal to let the public in on.") He then proceeded to change the mining plan to get the last scraps of coal out of the mine. The hundreds of safety violations and the failure to report seismic "bumps" betray both his disregard for human life and the toothless nature of America's regulatory system under the Bush administration.

When you use electricity (and when don't you?), think of those dead miners.

John deJong is associate publisher of CATALYST.

This article was originally published on August 31, 2007.