CRANDALL CANYON — Nearly 5 years removed from a disaster that left six miners and three would-be rescuers dead, the operator of the Crandall Canyon Mine is eyeing further mining at the site of the tragedy.
The company is remaining quiet about its plans, though its CEO took to the airwaves Friday in a rare TV interview to address the shutdown of another of his coal mines.
Bureau of Land Management minerals support supervisor Roger Bankert confirmed Murray Energy has expressed interest in mining at Crandall Canyon in the future. No date had been set or discussed, and it remained unclear where on the mine property the mining would take place.
The mine and surrounding land encompasses 3,517 acres. Bankert said the company and subsidiary Genwal have maintained their lease, which amounts annually to $3 per acre — or $10,551 – plus 1 percent of advance royalties, which represents what the company believes it can eventually recover.
BLM officials declined to disclose how much the 1 percent equaled, saying the number was proprietary to the company and based on production estimates.
Company officials declined interview requests Friday, responding by email, “We have no comment at this time.”
CEO Bob Murray did not address any future plans during an appearance on CNN Friday morning, instead railing on President Barack Obama's energy policies. Murray claimed they were the reason he had to shut down a mine near Brilliant, Ohio, and fire workers.
“I created those jobs,” Murray said during the interview. “I put the investment in that mine. And when it came time to lay these people off, I went up personally and talked to every one of them myself to lay them off. It’s a human issue.”
Murray further explained claims leveled by his company in an earlier news release that stated “regulatory actions by President Barack Obama and his appointees and followers” were “the entire reason” behind the shuttering.
“I’m not a politician, I’m an engineer,” Murray said. “And America had better wake up to what this man is doing.”
Murray denied his attack against the Obama administration’s policies was politically motivated. Though Murray has generally shied away from the media spotlight in recent years, he has remained politically active.
In May, Murray introduced presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a fundraiser in West Virginia. Murray has also reportedly contributed $150,000 to Republican coffers this year.
“That’s something that Democrats may try to take advantage of and tar Romney with that association,” said Matt Burbank, associate professor of political science at the University of Utah.
Burbank suggested if Murray remains vocal, his GOP involvement could become campaign cannon fodder for Democrats.
“What they’ll try to do, of course, is to tie Romney to the negative aspects of Mr. Murray’s operation,” Burbank said.
It’s unlikely, Burbank said, that the loose connection between Romney and Murray would result in any lasting or significant negative effect for the Romney campaign.
One state official suggested the decision to mine again at Crandall Canyon could be a difficult one for Murray Energy to weather.
“Basically, it’s a grave,” said Daron Haddock, co-program manager for the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. “There are people still buried there, so reopening that mine is certainly going to be an emotional issue, not just an economical issue.”
Haddock said if the decision is ultimately made to mine again at Crandall Canyon, the cost to stabilize the mine would be high and the current low coal prices would be discouraging for any short-term mining efforts.
The company only has a few options for what it can do, Haddock said.
The options include actively mining on the property, continuing to pay advance royalties — for up to another 15 years — or relinquishing the lease.
If Murray Energy gave up its lease, Haddock said the state would potentially look toward reclamation – essentially returning the land to something approximating its pristine state.
“I would expect that Murray Energy is looking at all those options and seeing which is best for them,” said Mike Nelson, chair of the University of Utah department of mining engineering and associate director of the newly formed Center for Mining Safety and Health Excellence.
“The human issues are more difficult and I don’t know how they’d do it.”