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Is Obama's Coal-Country Nemesis Hiring Again?

In the middle of last summer, as the presidential race was heading into its home stretch, there was a flurry of news about layoffs at Ohio coal mines owned by Murray Energy, whose more than 3,000 employees make it the largest privately-headed coal-mining concern in the country. Murray announced that it was going to shut down one mine entirely in September or October -- the Red Bird West mine, a surface-mining operation in Brilliant, Ohio that employed 56 people under the subsidiary name OhioAmerican Energy. Many of those employees were soon handed pink slips, though the company said it would try to relocate 32 of those employees to other Murray facilities in the area.

Domestic demand for coal has been declining as a result of the boom in cheap natural gas, but the company, led by its outspoken founder and CEO Robert Murray, left no doubt as to whom it blamed for the closure: Barack Obama. From the local newspaper's report on the closure:

"Both Mr. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden stated that there would be 'no coal in America' prior to their elections. They are making good on their intentions while they destroy so many lives and family livelihoods in this area for no benefit whatsoever," said Stanley T. Piasecki, general manager and superintendent for OhioAmerican.
"The mine was intended to last for at least 10 years. Now, we have been forced by our own country's president and his followers and supporters to permanently close the operation," Piasecki added of the mine that opened in May 2007.
"There will be additional layoffs, not only at Murray Energy, but also throughout the United States coal industry due to Mr. Obama's 'War on Coal' and the destruction that it has caused to so many jobs and families in the Ohio Valley area and elsewhere," said Ryan M. Murray, vice president of operations for Murray Energy.

Murray's case against Obama got more headlines in the weeks that followed. The firm hosted a huge rally for Mitt Romney at its mine in Beallsville, Ohio, which Romney turned into footage for a powerful ad attacking Obama for setting out to destroy the coal industry. This was followed by reports in the local media that miners had been required to attend the rally without pay. Soon afterward, I reported on another intersection of politics in the workplace: The pressure felt by salaried employees to give to the company's PAC and to Republican candidates Murray favored, efforts that had made Murray Energy one of the country's most formidable fundraisers for GOP campaigns.

Murray made headlines once again just after Election Day in November, when he announced that Obama's reelection was forcing him to lay off another 150 or so workers at mines in Utah and Illinois, a decision for which he offered a lengthy prayer of forgiveness.

All of which helps explain why I was surprised when I got reports from Ohio this week suggesting that operations at the Red Bird West mine, the one whose shutdown was announced with such fanfare last summer, are now picking up again. "It's opened back up...they're hiring people," said Gary Parsons, a former superintendent at the mine who worked there for five years before being laid off with the announcement of the shutdown last summer. Parsons himself has not been called back, and is planning simply to retire early, but he said he had talked to several locals who were taking steps to get hired back on. He said he did not understand why, after the big headline-making closure last year, things were perking up at the mine. "I don't know what's going on," he said. "They said they was going to close the mine down."

Another former Murray employee confirmed that operations were picking back up at Red Bird West. "They've called back some hourly folks. They're definitely starting it back up," the former employee said. What explained the reversal? This former employee conjectured that presidential campaign politics may have played a role. After all, announcing the shutdown of the mine a few months before Election Day was not helpful to Obama, who dearly needed to win Ohio. "In my opinion, it was all for politics," the former Murray employee said. "It was just a show of politics to try to scare people, to get votes for [Murray's] candidate...I felt they were playing politics from day one, and they certainly didn't waste any time starting back up again."

When I reached them on the phone, Murray officials disputed that they were restarting operations at Red Bird West. The only work going on at the mine, they said, was "reclamation" required as part of any shutdown. "We're required to put things back together. We're picking up some remnants of coal, some coal that was left over, as we clean up the place," said Gary Broadbent, a senior attorney for the company. He said that there were 42 or 43 people at the mine doing this work, and while the work could go on for a few years, there would be no expansion at the mine, which at its peak employed more than 200 people. "It’s not going to be anything near what it used to be," he said. The head count "is going to stay low...We’re drawing down rather than building up...We were at 239 at our peak and now we’re down to skin and bones."

Still, the company's current account would appear to be at variance with the announcement last summer, when Broadbent said that the mine would "gradually be closed through late September or early October," with no mention of a possibly years-long reclamation project. After all, if the head count was really dropping from only 56 to 43, odds are the move would not have made the headlines it did.

Regardless of just what's behind the activity at Red Bird Mine, it is welcome news in Brilliant, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River. Jason Canestraro, service manager at Southern Equipment, another employer in town, lives just adjacent to the mine and had noticed more trucks going in and out of late. "If it's jobs, it's great," he said.

Addendum, January 24: A former Murray employee in Utah informs me that people are being hired back at the Murray operations there, too, just a couple months after the big post-election layoffs. The former employee said about 25 had recently been hired back on. Murray officials demurred when asked about any uptick in activity at the Utah or Illinois mines where the post-election layoffs occurred. "I'm not intimately involved with the hiring or firing of employees," said Broadbent.

Follow me on Twitter @AlecMacGillis