(Reuters) – U.S. coal baron Robert Murray, an ally of President Donald Trump and a leading industry voice who called global warming a hoax, died on Sunday at age 80, U.S. media reported.
Murray retired on Oct. 19 after 63 years in the coal business, shortly after applying for federal benefits to treat his black lung disease, a respiratory illness caused by prolonged exposure to coal dust, according to a report by West Virginia public radio.
A colorful and outspoken leader of the Ohio company he founded, Murray Energy, Murray blamed environmental regulation for the demise of the coal industry and opposed more stringent coal dust regulations for years.
He saw an ally in Trump, and pressed his administration to roll back a slew of former President Barack Obama-era rules.
While Trump’s administration acted on many rollbacks on Murray’s wishlist, Murray’s company, once the largest privately-held coal company in the country, went bankrupt last year as demand for coal from power utilities slumped.
Murray, who had worked underground for 16 years early in his career, wrote in his filing for black lung benefits that he was near death and heavily dependent on an oxygen tank.
He died at his home St. Clairsville, Ohio, on Sunday while surrounded by family, WTOV television reported, citing a family spokesman.
Rich Nolan, president of the National Mining Association, which represents the coal industry, said of Murray’s passing: “There was no one more passionate about the importance and value of coal, and the absence of his voice will be felt by many.”
COAL INDUSTRY ADVOCATE
In a May 2017 interview with Reuters, Murray said he had drafted an “action plan of priorities” for the Trump administration that would help the coal industry.
The list started with rolling back the Stream Protection Rule that restricted the dumping of coal waste in waterways, and included scrapping the Clean Power Plan that aimed to slash carbon emissions from power plants.
Trump announced measures to axe those rules and several others early in his presidency.
“We have taken that list of those priorities and prioritized them and he [Trump] has gone right down that list to stop the war on coal,” he told Reuters in the interview.
Despite the rollbacks, the coal industry has remained under pressure due to competition from cheap natural gas and rising use of solar and wind power.
Murray Energy filed for bankruptcy protection last year and re-emerged as American Consolidated Natural Resources, which bills itself as the largest underground coal mining company in the United States.
Murray remained an unrelenting booster for the coal industry, even after experiencing its dangers firsthand.
His father was paralyzed from the neck down in a mining accident when Murray was nine years old, and Murray broke his neck twice in mining accidents.
“I’ve got a birdcage of titanium and vanadium between (vertebrae) C2 and C8,” Murray told Reuters in a 2013 interview, pulling back his collar to show a scar running down the back of his neck, the trace of a past surgery.
While Murray applied for black lung benefits, bankruptcy enabled his company to avoid obligations to employees diagnosed with black lung, shifting its $74.4 million liability to the federal government’s Black Lung Disability Trust Fund, according to Labor Department estimates provided to Congress.
(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Valerie Volcovici, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)