BEALLSVILLE - As Murray Energy continues building the $77 million addition to the Century Mine, owner Robert Murray hopes to hire about 300 new employees for the underground longwall mining facility.
However, Murray said President Obama's "war on coal" - combined with what he terms "non-efficient work rules imposed by the United Mine Workers of America" - may force him to close the nearby Powhatan No. 6 Mine, which he has operated since buying it in 1988. Union officials said there are now 487 UMWA members working at the Powhatan mine.
Closing the Powhatan facility would, in effect, make the addition to the Century Mine a replacement for the Powhatan mine, Murray said. The major difference in the Century Mine and Powhatan mine is that Century is a non-union mine, while Powhatan is represented by the UMWA.
Construction workers continue building the new $77 million coal preparation plant and slope at American Energy Corp.’s Century Mine in Beallsville.
This is the only union facility of the several Murray operates.
Although Murray owns both mines, the mines are operated by separate subsidiaries of Murray Energy. American Energy Corp. runs the existing Century Mine, while the Ohio Valley Coal Co. maintains Powhatan No. 6. The new $77 million Century expansion is taking place adjacent to the active facility.
"While we have very good employees at Ohio Valley, some of them are not. When we try to deal with them, the UMWA attempts to defend them, dragging the competitiveness of our good folks, who are the vast majority, down," said Murray. "The non-efficient work rules imposed by the UMWA contract make the operation less competitive."
Phil Smith, director of communications for UMWA, vehemently disagreed with Murray's views of the Powhatan mine. He said the company and the union reached a new contract for this mine just last month.
"That mine has consistently been Murray Energy's most productive and safest mine, and to close it makes no sense," Smith said. "The workforce at Powhatan No. 6 are not responsible for the contracts Murray has signed to sell the coal."
"Given the long-term productivity and safety superiority of the Powhatan No. 6 Mine, it seems to us that the responsibility for any competition issues fall more on management's decision-making than on the miners themselves," he added.
Smith also said the Consol Energy Shoemaker and McElroy mines - right across the Ohio River from the Murray facilities - are "extremely competitive, as are all of the other mines the UMWA represents."
Murray disputed Smith's comments, claiming that "Ohio Valley and the Powhatan No. 6 Mine has not been among our most productive or safest operations."
Murray said in 2011, labor costs at the union Powhatan mine averaged $57 per hour, including wages and benefits. At Murray's non-union facilities, labor costs were no more than $44 per hour.
While driving around the site of the new Century Mine last week, Murray said, "This mine was built to be a third mine in this area. However, because of Obama's war on coal and the increased focus on natural gas, the new mine could become a replacement for Powhatan No. 6 Mine."
"Our problems in the coal marketplace have been created by President Barack Obama and his supporters - and to some extent, the added use of natural gas," Murray added.