Coal Baron Who Fought to Weaken Black Lung Protections Files for Black Lung Benefits

Coal Baron Who Fought to Weaken Black Lung Protections Files for Black Lung Benefits
Bob Murray giving a thumbs up in August 2007 near Huntington, Utah during rescue efforts to save six miners trapped after a collapse at the Crandall Mine he co-owned. (Photo: Justin Sullivan, Getty Images)
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Bob Murray is many things. The last coal baron. A huge Trump supporter. A climate denier. A big deregulation fan. And now, apparently, an applicant for federal black lung benefits.

Ohio Valley ReSource, a cooperative of local journalism outlets in the heart of coal country, reported and confirmed that Murray applied for the benefits managed by the Department of Labour on Wednesday. The former CEO of his own company, Murray Energy, worked his way up from the mines, and so it’s perhaps no surprise he would need help to cope with black lung. But what is surprising is that a billionaire who has fervently opposed rules designed to reduce the risk of black lung and paid tens of millions in safety-related fines would do so.

Now look, I’m not some monster who believes people shouldn’t have access to benefits. The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund — a pot of money in part funded by a tax on coal companies — is the least the government can do to provide for workers who got sick while helping power the U.S. But it’s a little rich for someone like Bob Murray to be dipping into it.

Murray told NPR less than a year ago that he did not, in fact, have black lung. Instead, he blamed his regular need for oxygen on another lung disease, idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Yet in his black lung claim obtained by Ohio Valley ReSource, Murray, who is 80, said he is “near death” due to the disease.

But beyond the about-face on having black lung, Murray has also done so much to fight protections from the disease. He and Murray Energy have given millions to Republicans, according to Federal Election Commission reports. That includes a nearly $US284,000 ($396,095) personal donation in August 2017 to America First Action, a Trump-backing super PAC, and a $US1 ($1) million company donation in August 2019 to Trump Victory, a PAC for the president’s reelection.

Murray’s largesse may have been one reason why then-Energy Secretary Rick Perry met with the coal baron in March 2017 in which he handed off an action plan to Perry. Among the items in the plan, obtained by the New York Times, was a call for neutering the Mine Safety and Health Administration that oversees conditions coal miners work in, including exposure to dust that can cause black lung. Another action item was wiping out a 2014 regulation to reduce coal mine dust designed to reduce the risk of lung diseases like black lung, a rule that Murray Energy has previously sued the Obama administration over.

Murray Energy also kicked $US300,000 ($418,410) in 2014 to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s group, Kentuckians for Strong Leadership. Under McConnell’s “strong leadership” last year, Congress let the tax rate on coal that supports the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund lapse from $US1 ($1).10 per ton. It reverted to the 1977 rate of just $US0.55 ($1). With coal in decline, that means there’s even less revenue in the fund to help those who suffered this work-related disease that Murray now wants in on. Oh, and the Government Accountability Office estimates the fund will be $US15 ($21) billion debt by midcentury if Congress doesn’t help shore it up.

In short, Murray has used his wealth and position of power to push for reducing protections and funds for the very disease he now wants protections and funds to help him deal with. None of this even gets into the rampant climate denial Murray has funded, the flagrant mining violations — including the collapse of a mine in Utah caused by “reckless disregard for safety” that killed six miners and three rescuers — and his lawsuit going after John Oliver for reporting facts.

To qualify for the fund, Murray’s claim will be reviewed by the Department of Labour. If approved, his own coal company (though he was removed as CEO last year after it filed for bankruptcy) will be liable for paying his benefits. The company could dispute the claim, something that happens on the regular for miners.

“You often see doctors who testify for coal companies raise an argument about, perhaps the miner was overweight. Perhaps the miner has been exposed to animal manure if he grew up on a farm, and perhaps that is causing his breathing trouble today — after working for 15 or 20 or 30 years in the mines,” Sam Petsonk, a West Virginia-based attorney who has represented former Murray miners seeking black lung claims, told Ohio Valley ReSource.

It seems unlikely that Murray Energy would dispute its founder’s claim, but it could save itself some money if it did, something I’m sure Murray the businessman would appreciate. As Petsonk noted, “if you’ve black lung, you’re dying. There’s no two ways about it. And you may live for a while, but you’re going to die soon. And all I have to do is — if I’m the lawyer on the other side — wait around, wait him out and they’ll die. And they did. And then, the claimant goes to the widow and you wait her out, too.”