WASHINGTON Money from coal companies has been fueling Republican House Speaker Thom Tillis’ race to unseat U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan, including $21,100 from the nation’s largest privately owned coal company.
The contributions came from the Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. The owner and founder, Robert E. Murray, is a major backer of Republican candidates and a fierce opponent of President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, especially over a proposal that would limit heat-trapping emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Murray Energy is Tillis’ fifth-largest contributor. He has received money from the owner, company officers, employees and family members, and the company’s political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.
The coal industry has not been a major political donor to Hagan, a Democrat from Greensboro who is seeking a second term. But Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based power company that relies on coal as a source of fuel, has been among her top 20 financial contributors.
Duke Energy’s employees, lobbyists and political action committee have given her $20,400 between 2007 and 2014, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.
Tillis received the $21,100 from Murray and related individuals in the first quarter of this year. He has also received individual contributions from other coal company executives and mining industry political action committees. Through June, he has raised $58,000 from the coal industry, according to the center – part of the $2.9 million he raised overall in the first two quarters.
In all, Murray Energy employees have given $522,093 to political candidates across the country in 2013 and so far in 2014. All of those contributions in the current campaign cycle have been to Republicans, except for $2,500 to Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., who’s running for re-election this year.
Some Murray executives listed their occupation on the Federal Election Commission forms as “coal miner.” One of them, Ronald D. Koontz, is general manager of the Ohio Valley Coal Co., a Murray subsidiary, according to a 2012 company news release. He donated $1,000 to the Tillis campaign, part of more than $13,000 he has given to Republican candidates since 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Koontz did not answer calls for comment.
Wayne E. Conaway Jr. of Farmington, W.Va., who works in Murray Energy’s safety department, said he gave $375 to Tillis because Tillis supports coal. He said the company emphasized to employees that “we’ve got to get out and protect our livelihood.”
“We have no comment,” said Gary Broadbent, Murray Energy’s media director and assistant general counsel, in response to questions about the company’s support for Tillis.
In a message on the company’s website, Robert Murray, who founded the company in 1988 with the purchase of a single mine, said his industry is “embattled from excessive federal government regulations and, to a lesser extent, by the increased use of natural gas for the generation of electricity.”
He added: “In my 57 years of coal mining experience, I have never before seen the destruction of an industry that we are witnessing today, with reliable, low-cost electric power also being eliminated.”
In June, Murray Energy filed the first lawsuit against the EPA to try to block the rule on power plant emissions limits. The suit asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to prevent the EPA from implementing what the company said in a news release was “this illegal and disastrous rule on electric power generation.”
Twelve states filed a separate lawsuit against the administration on Aug. 1 in another attempt to stop the proposed rule: West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota and Wyoming.
Murray also has disagreed with the scientific view that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is the main reason for the warming of the planet. In an interview with West Virginia Executive Magazine for a story published in May, he was quoted as saying the Obama administration was lying about global warming. Murray contended that the Earth was cooling.
The company has 12 coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Utah and employs more than 7,300 people.
In 2007, a collapse at the company’s Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah killed six miners. Three more people died 10 days later in a rescue attempt. Murray subsidiaries agreed in 2012 that violations contributed to the accident, including improper mine design. The subsidiaries paid $1.15 million, which covered penalties for the collapse and the settlement of other violations at other Utah mines.
Pointing fingers on coal ash
The Tillis campaign has accused Hagan of “rubber-stamping” what it calls the president’s “anti-energy agenda.” This year the Obama administration is drafting a rule that for the first time would limit heat-trapping pollution from existing power plants by specified amounts, but leave it up to the states to decide how.
Hagan said earlier this year that she supports the idea, calling it “key to protecting our environment for future generations.” Tillis is against it. Campaign spokesman Dan Keylin said it would “destroy jobs and cause electricity prices to surge.”
The Tillis campaign also argued in a recent press release that Hagan has a “cozy relationship with Duke Energy” and a “dismal record” on coal ash. Duke serves customers in the Southeast and Midwest. A spill from the company’s pond in Eden sent 39,000 tons of coal ash – the residue produced from the burning of coal – into the Dan River in February, the third-largest coal ash spill ever in the nation.
Tillis points to his work this year on a bill in the state House that would clean up the ash ponds by creating a coal ash commission to design a plan. The House and Senate passed separate bills but have not agreed on how to reconcile them. The Senate bill has firm deadlines for Duke to clean up or cap its 33 ash ponds in the state, while the House bill is more open-ended. Environmentalists have problems with both bills.
As a state senator in 2006, Hagan voted for a bill that put a moratorium on large landfills that would have taken other states’ trash. It included an exemption for landfills used to contain the waste from coal-fired power plants.
In 2007, she voted for a solid waste management bill that the General Assembly passed. Tillis opposed it. The measure upgraded landfill requirements, created a surcharge on trash to be used for cleanup of abandoned dumps and hazardous sites and established buffers around state parks and other protected areas. It also allowed for the disposal of coal ash in unlined landfills.
Hagan wants to see federal regulation. Duke has 33 unlined ash pits at 14 plants in North Carolina.
“Given that the state’s activities with respect to coal ash are the subject of a federal investigation,” said Hagan spokeswoman Sadie Weiner, “Kay believes that the federal government needs to be involved with regulation and oversight of active and legacy coal ash ponds to ensure protection of public health and the environment, and they should move forward with regulations to set a minimum standard for how to manage coal ash sites.”
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