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Feds say Murray Energy made threats after citations

WHEELING, W.Va. — The Mine Safety and Health Administration cited Murray Energy Corp. for 29 “significant safety hazards” at five West Virginia coal mines in less than one month after receiving confidential complaints from miners.

Now, MSHA accuses Murray officials of “threatening reprisal and mine closure” to those United Mine Workers of America members who filed those complaints at the Marshall County Mine near Cameron, while also claiming the company interfered with the rights of miners to file complaints at all five of Murray’s West Virginia mines, including the Ohio County Mine near Benwood.

However, Murray spokesman Gary Broadbent said company Chairman, President and CEO Robert E. Murray merely asked that employees also notify management of these safety concerns so officials could address the matters.

The MSHA rule in question allows miners to file safety complaints confidentially, without having their identities revealed to the mine operator.

“The allegations raised in this complaint are blatantly false, and we will continue to vigorously defend against these frivolous claims,” Broadbent said. “There is a long history of UMWA-represented hourly employees filing false safety complaints with the federal government to intimidate management. The overwhelmingly negative findings of MSHA have clearly demonstrated, over the years, that there were no such safety issues – just an unhappy miner using this procedural right in a way that actually harms worker safety.”

The coal operations in question are the mines Murray purchased for $3.5 billion from Consol Energy in late 2013. These include the Marshall County Mine, formerly the McElroy Mine; the Ohio County Mine, formerly the Shoemaker Mine; the Monongalia County Mine, formerly the Blacksville No. 2 Mine; the Marion County Mine, formerly the Loveridge Mine; and the Harrison County Mine, formerly the Robinson Run Mine.

According to MSHA, inspectors issued 29 citations at these mines from March 12, 2014 to April 9, 2014, due to responding to the confidential complaints. These violations included the accumulation of coal dust along conveyor belts, inoperative escapes, an inadequately supported roof, flammable concentrations of methane near a seal, inoperative emergency communication systems and inadequate ventilation.

After receiving these citations, Murray reportedly scheduled a series of “awareness meetings” with employees at the mines during which he told miners they must report “unsafe situations and compliance issues to management.”

According to MSHA, Murray told the Marshall County miners that confidential complaints caused internal conflict at the mine.

“And if you want to fight inside, let me tell you: I’ll go on to a better coal mine, and we’ll close this one,” MSHA quoted Murray as telling the Marshall County employees during the awareness meeting.

Broadbent defended the company’s – and Murray’s – attitude toward safety.

“No one wants to see total employee safety at the Marshall County Coal Co., and for those 900 jobs to survive, more than Mr. Robert E. Murray,” Broadbent said. “Mr. Murray is a leader in the U.S. coal industry and a champion of mine safety. Indeed, he frequently tells our employees that there is no pound of coal worth getting hurt over, and no topic is discussed until all safety issues are fully addressed. Any suggestion otherwise is a blatant lie.”

Regarding the remaining West Virginia mines, MSHA states Murray interfered with those employees’ rights to file confidential complaints. In the case before the Mine Safety and Health Review Commission, the agency is seeking $120,000 worth of fines for the alleged violations.

In a related matter, Murray recently sued the UMWA for refusing to report allegedly unsafe working conditions to management. However, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith said the labor organization believes it is within its rights.

“The Murray Energy lawsuit is completely without merit. We look forward to defending our members’ health and safety on the job in court as well as in the mines,” Smith said.

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