Miners lives take back seat to profit
An aerial view of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Huntington, where miners were killed in a mine disaster, is seen Monday, Aug. 6, 2007. Fritz Holly, Associated Press

When Louis Alonso Hernandez, 23, Manuel Sanchez, 41, Kerry Allred, 57, Brandon Phillips, 24, Don Erickson, 50, and Carlos Payan, in his 20s, began their 12-hour shift 1,500 feet underground at the Crandall Canyon mine Aug. 6, they fully expected to see their families at the end of the day.

Now their families are gathered, praying, and waiting as over 100 rescue workers, including members of the United Mine Workers Union, furiously drill and dig to find the miners.

The Crandall Canyon mine is nonunion.

Eight hours into their 12-hour shift, the mine collapsed at 2:48 a.m. Four members of the 10-man crew escaped. As we go to press, rescue efforts continue.

Solidarity messages have flooded into the trapped miners’ families from across the country. Sago Mine families, 2,500 miles away in West Virginia, sent their prayers and expressed their determination to demand the federal government force coal companies to make the mines safe.

“I have shed many tears this evening,” Peggy Cohen, daughter of Fred Ware, who died in the Sago Mine disaster in January 2006, wrote to the Charleston Gazette. “My heart aches for them [the Utah families].”

Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of Sago disaster victim Marty Bennett, wrote that despite all the publicity, congressional hearings, state and federal laws, and politicians’ speeches and promises, coal mines remain as dangerous as they were before the Sago disaster.

“The fines have been minimal, and until MSHA [the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration] starts cracking down with stiff fines for violations that are putting these miners at risk, more and more miners are going to die,” Campbell wrote. “Repeat violations should not be tolerated at any of our nation’s mines. Enough is not being done. How many more miners have to die before someone listens?”

For millionaire coal operator Robert E. Murray, owner of Crandall Canyon mine, this is not the first time his company has been cited for breaking federal mine safety laws. According to MSHA records, since January 2004 MSHA cited the Crandall Canyon mine for 325 violations, 118 of them considered serious enough to have possibly caused death or injury.

The company was fined a total of $6,000 for the violations, but there is no record of their payment of the fines or corrections of the problems. The mine has been inspected six times so far this year and fined $3,773 for 40 violations.

A mine organized by the UMWA would not tolerate such dangerous conditions. “When you are talking about [almost 120 violations in three years], that would be alarming to me,” said the union’s western regional director, Bob Butero, based in Denver. “If it were one of our union mines, we wouldn’t allow that pattern to continue.” A union organizing effort at Crandall Canyon several years ago failed.

Meanwhile, mine owner Murray, CEO of Cleveland-area-based Murray Energy Corp., is busy counting up profits and writing checks to Republican candidates.

In 2006, the miners at Murray’s Genwal Complex, which includes the 71 miners at the Crandall Canyon mine, dug 604,975 tons of coal used in the production of electricity. Their work brought in $25.5 million to the company.

Murray Energy owns 11 mines in four states. Its 3,000 miners produced 20 million tons of coal in 2006, worth an estimated $844 million. In terms of 12-hour shifts and productivity, that translates to about $281,000 per miner. Murray Energy is the 12th largest coal company in the country.

It should come as no surprise that, while there are no records that Murray ever wrote a check to a Democratic candidate for any office, anywhere, there is a long paper trail of contributions to Republicans. The Federal Elections Commission reports that since 2005, Murray, through the Murray Energy Corp. Political Action Committee, has contributed more than $155,000 to GOP candidates.


Denise Winebrenner Edwards
Denise Winebrenner Edwards

Denise Winebrenner Edwards is a long-time trade union and community activist. She lives in western Pennsylvania.