Coal CEO requests health benefits for black lung disease he opposed

Robert Murray, a coal CEO who for decades ran the nation’s largest privately held coal mining company, has filed to obtain benefits from the Labor Department for black lung disease, according to a report from The Ohio Valley Resource and West Virginia Public Broadcasting (WVPR).  

The request is notable because Murray, the former CEO and president of Murray Energy, for years opposed regulations aimed at making mining safer for workers, and that were intended to prevent people from getting the disease.

Ohio Valley Research, which is a regional journalism collaborative that is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, reported that Murray has submitted the initial paperwork to the federal government to obtain worker compensation benefits for black lung.

“I founded the company and created 8,000 jobs there until the move to end coal use. I am still chairman of the board,” he wrote on his application. “We’re in bankruptcy, and due to my health could not handle the president and CEO job any longer.”

Murray, 80, wrote in his claim that he heavily relies on an oxygen tank and is “near death.”

When reached by The Ohio Valley Resource for comment on his claim, Murray reportedly threatened to sue if a story was published indicating he had fought federal regulations and benefits.

The coal baron on Thursday spoke with The Intelligencer, a local outlet based in West Virginia, and confirmed that he had filed the disability claim with the Labor Department “a few weeks ago” but acknowledged that he may not be approved for benefits. 

He told the outlet that doctors who specialize in black lung disease suggested he may have it, but said they would not know for certain until an autopsy is performed after his death. 

“I’m entitled to that benefit just like anyone else,” Murray said in a phone interview with The Intelligencer. “I have no income. I don’t own the old company. It’s gone. So I have the right.”

His claim to the Labor Department reportedly states that he developed black lung disease in his years spent working underground while supervising operations.

“During my 63 years working in underground coal mines, I worked 16 years every day at the mining face underground and went underground every week until I was age 75,” Murray wrote in his claim.

Murray’s argument appears to contradict what he told the Associated Press in 2017 and NPR last October, in which he said he had a lung disease that was not related to his work in the mines. 

“It’s idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. IPF, and it is not related to my work in the industry. They’ve checked for that,” Murray told NPR. “And it’s not — has anything to do with working in the coal mines, which I did for 17 years underground every day. And until I was 76, I went underground twice a week.”

Coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, commonly known as “black lung disease,” is a debilitating illness that results from inhaling coal dust that has no known cure. An estimated 16 percent of coal miners in the U.S. will contract the disease, according to The American Lung Association. 

The Black Lung Benefits Act provides monthly compensation and medical treatment benefits who miners who contracted the disease and have becoming disabled. 

Coal companies have been actively attempting to roll back fees that go into the pot for those with black lung disease amid the coronavirus pandemic, with has exacerbated ongoing financial difficulties for the struggling industry. In March, the National Mining Association asked lawmakers to reduce payments the industry must make to the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund to 2019 levels after Congress increased that tax by $220 million for this year.

Coal companies deemed responsible for the miner’s disease often contest the payments, triggering lengthy legal battles.

Murray’s companies have a history of disputing the claims to black lung benefits from their miners, according to The Ohio Valley Resource and WVPR. 

Court filings released as part of Murray Energy’s bankruptcy proceedings reportedly showed that the company could be responsible for as much as $155 million under the Black Lung Act and general workers’ compensation. The outlets noted that the company only offered $1.1 million in collateral. 

Murray was one of the loudest critics of former President Obama and his administration’s attempts to implement environmental regulations, frequently suing over environmental policies. He called Obama the “nation’s greatest destroyer” and said he is “intent on destroying coal and our country for their bizarre personal and political ends.”

In 2014, Murray Energy sued the federal government against regulations aimed at reducing miners’ exposure to coal dust. The Obama-era rule increased the frequency of dust sampling and required coal operators to take immediate action when dust levels were high.  

Murray has since become an outspoken supporter of President TrumpDonald John TrumpPresident Trump, Melania Trump test positive for COVID-19 Trump, first lady to quarantine after top aide tests positive for coronavirus Secret recordings show Melania Trump was frustrated about criticism of Trump 2018 border separation policy: CNN MORE and reportedly donated $300,000 to his inauguration.

After Trump entered office, Murray presented the president with an “action plan” of pro-coal policy requests, including pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and repealing the Clean Power Plan.

Murray began working as a miner for the North American Coal Corporation in 1957, a company which is listed as a potentially liable party in his claim. He served as president of another coal company, Ohio Valley Resources, Inc, before he went on to establish Murray Energy in 1988.

Murray Energy Holdings emerged last month from federal bankruptcy protection under a new name and ownership group, called American Consolidated Natural Resources, Inc. The company has active mines in Alabama, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Utah.

Murray now serves as chairman of the succeeding company and told The Intelligencer that “I can function in that job.” 

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