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Robert Murray, Ohio coal baron who fought government regulations, dies at 80

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/27/2020 Harrison Smith

Robert E. Murray, who built the country’s largest private coal mining company while emerging as one of his industry’s most aggressively outspoken champions, excoriating environmental regulations while cultivating personal relationships with members of the Trump administration, died Oct. 25 at his home in St. Clairsville, Ohio. He was 80.

His lawyer, Michael J. Shaheen, did not give a precise cause but said Mr. Murray had recently applied for federal benefits offered to coal miners suffering from black lung disease. Mr. Murray had previously fought government regulations that aimed to combat the disease, which is caused by long-term exposure to coal dust.

A fourth-generation coal miner from southeastern Ohio, Mr. Murray had a more than ­six-decade career in the coal industry. He lied about his age to start working in the mines at 16, seven years after his father — also a miner — was paralyzed in an accident, and went on to start a mining company of his own, founding Murray Energy with a single mine in 1988.

While the company never rivaled publicly traded giants such as Peabody Energy, Mr. Murray grew his firm into one of the country’s leading mining operations, taking on billions of dollars in debt to scoop up competitors. Murray Energy expanded to include more than a dozen active mines around the nation and in Colombia, along with mining-equipment manufacturing facilities and truck, rail and river terminals.

Like his rivals, Mr. Murray struggled to compete with low natural gas prices and the rise of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar. While coal plants provided nearly half of the country’s electricity in 2010, they accounted for about 23 percent last year. Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy in 2019, and Mr. Murray died less than a week after announcing his retirement as chairman of a successor company, American Consolidated Natural Resources.

[Murray Energy files for bankruptcy as coal’s role in U.S. power dwindles]

Until recently, he had been a frequent guest and provocateur on cable television programs, where he praised coal as an essential part of American life while rebuking unions, “liberal elitists” and “environmental alarmists” who noted that carbon-dioxide emissions from coal power plants are a leading driver of climate change.

Mr. Murray used the term “so-called global warming,” rejecting the scientific consensus, and repeatedly bashed President Barack Obama’s environmental initiatives and “evil agenda,” which he blamed for strangling the industry. He filed at least a dozen lawsuits against the Obama administration, variously calling the president “an outlaw” and “the greatest enemy I’ve ever had in my life.”

His vitriolic language made him a natural ally to President Trump, who campaigned for the White House on a promise to end “the war on coal.” Trump vowed “to put our miners back to work,” wore a coal miner’s helmet at a campaign rally in West Virginia and, in Mr. Murray’s telling, called the coal executive shortly after the 2016 election to reiterate his support for miners.

Mr. Murray donated $300,000 to the president’s inauguration and soon presented the Trump administration with a 16-point “action plan” for rescuing the industry, at a time when dozens of coal plant closures were being announced across the country. “I’m not a patient man,” he told Bloomberg News of his proposals. “I’m going to be watching.”

He did not have to wait long. In March 2017, Mr. Murray and 10 of his miners were invited to the Environmental Protection Agency’s headquarters, where Trump signed an executive order to unwind Obama-era coal measures and climate change regulations.

Within a year, many of Mr. Murray’s pro-coal suggestions had been adopted in some form, including proposals that the Trump administration slash the staff of the EPA and withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord. A proposal from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize ailing coal and nuclear plants, which Mr. Murray had championed, was among the few pro-coal ideas that did not gain traction.

[Trump officials took actions on energy policies suggested by coal tycoon, documents show]

“I give President Trump and his administration credit for being bold, being passionate and being correct in addressing a lot of these issues that were on my list here,” he told the New York Times in 2018. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), who obtained the “action plan” and shared it with the newspaper, called the document “an extraordinary arrogance of the fossil fuel industry.”

Mr. Murray was criticized for his company’s safety record and accused of pressuring his employees to attend political rallies or donate money to his preferred candidates. But he remained unabashed about his coal boosterism, characterizing himself as a coal miner, through and through, who was interested in maintaining jobs that supported communities from Utah to West Virginia.

“This is a human issue for me,” he told the Times in 2016, lamenting that most of the 431 miners at his Powhatan No. 6 mine would probably be laid off when it closed down later that year. “It kills me. Lives are being destroyed deliberately by some and by the ignorance of most.”

His company filed for bankruptcy three years later, although Mr. Murray — by then serving as chairman, not chief executive — had continued to make a fortune from the business. He paid himself $14 million in wages, according to a Times report, while donating to organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and giving nearly $1 million to groups that deny the existence of human-caused climate change.

Robert Eugene Murray was born Jan. 13, 1940, and grew up in Bethesda, Ohio. After his father was paralyzed from the neck down, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, leading Mr. Murray to mow lawns to support the family. He later recalled using a coal miner’s lamp to keep working after dark.

Mr. Murray graduated from high school first in his class, and said he was offered a scholarship to attend medical school and return home to replace the local doctor. Instead he chose a life in mining, and received a bachelor’s degree in engineering from Ohio State University before starting his career full-time at the North American Coal Corp.

He worked there for more than three decades, twice breaking his neck in mining accidents, and rose to become chief executive before being fired in 1987. Mr. Murray said that it was because he refused to back a reincorporation plan that would allow the company to shed employee benefits.

After mortgaging his home — and selling his children’s toys, in his telling — he bought Powhatan No. 6 in Ohio, launching what became Murray Energy.

Mr. Murray grew the company in part by acquiring mines located near power plants with access to rivers, reducing transportation costs. He was also credited with helping to develop longwall mining techniques that enable miners to extract coal more efficiently.

At the same time, he acquired a reputation for litigiousness, suing several newspapers as well as “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver for coverage of him and his company. (Oliver claimed victory after Murray Energy dropped its defamation lawsuit in 2019, two years after the HBO host ran a scathing segment on Mr. Murray and his business practices.)

Mr. Murray became increasingly prominent in the wake of a 2007 collapse at the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah, which trapped and killed six of his miners. Three others were killed when a rescue tunnel collapsed 10 days later.

While appearing in television interviews during the rescue effort, Mr. Murray shouted down reporters and insisted that the disaster was caused by an earthquake. That explanation was later contradicted by federal investigators who concluded “unauthorized mining practices” and design flaws had contributed to the disaster, and found no evidence of an earthquake.

Murray Energy subsidiaries agreed to a nearly $1 million Labor Department settlement for violations at the mine. In a 2019 interview with NPR, Mr. Murray continued to insist that an earthquake was to blame, while calling the collapse “the worst thing of my life. I take it, obviously, to my grave.”

He was by then receiving supplemental oxygen for a lung disease, which he identified as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and said was “not related to my work in the industry.”

Survivors include his wife of 58 years, the former Brenda Moore; three sons, Robert, Ryan and Jonathan Murray; a sister; and eight grandchildren.

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Robert E. Murray wearing a suit and tie looking at the camera: Robert Murray founded Murray Energy, the country’s largest private coal mining company. © Joshua Roberts/Reuters Robert Murray founded Murray Energy, the country’s largest private coal mining company. Robert E. Murray et al. standing in front of a crowd: Mr. Murray in 2007, leading a tour of Crandall Canyon mine in Utah after a collapse trapped six miners underground. Ten people ultimately died in the episode. © Rick Bowmer/AP Mr. Murray in 2007, leading a tour of Crandall Canyon mine in Utah after a collapse trapped six miners underground. Ten people ultimately died in the episode. Robert E. Murray standing in front of a crowd of people: Mr. Murray with two miners in 2007. © Kenny Crookston/AP Mr. Murray with two miners in 2007.
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