Some Coal Tattoo readers had questions following my post last week about West Virginia University (my alma mater) naming a chair in its mining engineering department for controversial coal operator Bob Murray in exchange for a $1 million donation to the school.
Does WVU want students to learn the kinds of mine safety practices by Murray’s company that led to the deaths of six miners and three rescuers — and prompted more than $1 million in safety fines and calls for a criminal investigation — at the Crandall Canyon disaster in August 2007?
Or maybe WVU thinks Murray set a good example for students when he tried to use his friendship with Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to get federal mine safety inspectors to back off enforcing the law at one of Murray’s mines?
Perhaps WVU especially thinks that students could learn from watching Murray’s nationally televised tirades against labor unions, government inspectors and the media while families of his workers waited for word on whether those Crandall Canyon miners were dead or alive?
We won’t know … because WVU’s new president, James P. Clements, isn’t granting interviews on the subject. I asked earlier this week for a few minutes of Clements’ time to ask him these kinds of questions, and all I got back was this prepared statement from university spokesman Dan Kim:
Mr. Murray has a history of support to WVU and its research endeavors. His most recent gift will help the University to continue and expand research that focuses on safer, more efficient and more ecologically sound methods of recovering and processing fossil fuels.
Back in the day, while writing for WVU’s Daily Athenaeum and then covering higher education for the Gazette, I wrote a lot of stories that then-WVU President Neil Bucklew wasn’t very happy about. But you know what? Bucklew always returned my phone calls, answered my questions and, for the most part, was pretty polite about it.
I guess things change …
Anyway, if anyone has forgotten, here’s what then-MSHA chief Richard Stickler said his agency’s investigators found at Crandall Canyon:
MSHA’s investigation found that Genwal Resources recklessly failed to immediately report three previous coal outbursts that had occurred, two in March 2007 and one just three days before the August 6th accident. These reporting failures were critical, because they deprived MSHA of the information it needed to properly assess the operator’s mining plans. MSHA also found that the operator was taking more coal than allowed from the barrier pillars and the floor. This dangerously weakened the strength of the roof support.
I did get a call back from Wayne King, president of the university’s fundraising arm, the WVU Foundation. King said he might have seen some news coverage of Crandall Canyon, but hadn’t really put that together with Murray and the donation to WVU:
I think it’s probably read or seen something about it. I have a vague memory of seeing or hearing something about it. I’ve been made aware of it in recent days by some of the articles [about the donation].
King said he’s not aware of any written guidelines about whether something negative about a person or company will prohibit WVU found taking their money or naming something after them:
That would be discussed on a case-by-case basis.
Was there ever any discussion by WVU and the WVU Foundation about not accepting the Murray’s money, or at least not naming a chair after him?
I can only say that I was not involved in any discussions about that. The decision to solicit and receive the gift was made by the university.
Stay tuned, I’m hoping to talk to College of Engineering Dean Gene Cilento about this subject, and I’ve got some other irons in the fire that might be interesting follow-up posts …