Photo: AP

Coal mining: Extremely dangerous! Especially when your boss lies to the government about safety records.

In a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Daniel L. Couch Jr. admitted to making false statements on mine examination records at a Kentucky coal mine operated by KenAmerican Resources, a subsidiary of Murray Energy, where he was the director of maintenance. Murray Energy is owned by Robert Murray, a powerful Republican donor and one of the last American coal barons. From the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

Couch faces up to five years in prison, a maximum fine of $250,000, and a three-year term of supervised release. He entered his guilty plea last week during a hearing before Chief Judge Joseph H. McKinley Jr. in Owensboro, Kentucky.

A federal grand jury indicted Couch in February, alleging two counts of making false statements on records required to be maintained under the federal mine safety law. Under the law, all electrical equipment must be frequently examined, tested and properly maintained, and a record of examinations of such equipment must be maintained and made available to MSHA inspectors.

“KenAmerican Resources, Inc. is aware of this matter and has taken appropriate action to address it,” Murray Energy spokesman Gary Broadbent told Fusion in an emailed statement. “We have no further comment at this time.” Couch is no longer employed by KenAmerican.

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In August 2007, nine miners died at the Crandall Canyon Mine near Huntington, Utah—six in an initial collapse, and three more working as rescuers 10 days later. A Congressional investigation found that the company ignored “red flags” about the stability of the mine. The company “allowed the conditions at Crandall Canyon to deteriorate,” Joe Main, assistant Secretary of Labor and head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in 2012, announcing a settlement agreement. “These failures resulted in the needless deaths of nine” miners and rescuers, according to Solicitor of Labor Patricia Smith.

In what was third-largest fine ever levied against a coal company, Murray Energy agreed to pay nearly a million dollars in penalties to the Department of Labor. It also settled the wrongful death lawsuits brought by the victims’ families; those settlements, however, included non-disclosure agreements. The bodies of the six miners trapped in the initial collapse were never recovered.

These days, in addition to suing both John Oliver and the New York Times, Robert Murray is taking meetings at the White House and attending executive order signings. EPA chief Scott Pruitt met in person with Murray on March 29th. “They discussed ways to protect the jobs and family livelihoods of coal miners in the United States and to preserve reliable, low-cost electricity for all Americans, while still protecting the environment,” Gary Broadbent, the Murray spokesman, wrote to Fusion.

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“Given virtually every Democrat in the Country supported Hillary Clinton, who publicly stated that she was ‘gonna put a lot of coal miners and coal companies outta business,’ Murray Energy Corporation chose to support President Trump, Attorney General Pruitt, and like-minded Republicans, who have been staunch defenders of the United States coal industry, and the jobs and family livelihoods that depend on it, and low-cost, reliable electricity for all Americans,” Broadbent continued. “This prior support should not preclude Mr. Murray from exercising his First Amendment rights.”

An email recently disclosed by the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General reveals that the two have known each other since at least 2014:

Senator Inhofe’s intuition that Murray and Pruitt would have much in common was correct: Murray Energy and AG Pruitt collaborated frequently on lawsuits against the EPA; in 2015, Murray gave the Republican Attorneys General Association, of which Pruitt was a member, $250,00, and, according to FEC filings, Murray donated $50,000 to Liberty 2.0, a super PAC supporting Pruitt, in August. Pruitt was not up for election last year.

“I grew up poor,” Murray told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer in April. “I care about my coal miners. I care about these people.” According to filings with the MSHA, there have been at least eight deaths in Murray-owned mines since 2011.

If you have any information about Robert Murray, his mines, or his relationship with Scott Pruitt or the Trump administration, please get in touch.


This post was produced by the Special Projects Desk of Gizmodo Media Group.