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PRICE, Carbon County — They're gearing up again at the state Department of Workforce Services to help scores of miners who received pink slips this week from UtahAmerican Energy Inc.
"The coal mines are great jobs," said DWS workforce development specialist Nicole Steele.
"But over the years, they do go up and down," Steele said. "It's kind of a roller coaster and everybody's aware of that."
Roller coaster or not, the reason given Wednesday for the reduction of 102 jobs at the West Ridge Mine near East Carbon threw just about everyone for a loop.
They were necessary because of the Obama administration's "war on coal," according to a statement issued by UtahAmerican Energy, a subsidiary of Murray Energy Corp.
In addition to the layoffs in Utah, Murray Energy also announced job cuts Wednesday at subsidiaries in Illinois and West Virginia, citing the same reason.
The "war on coal" slogan was used frequently during the presidential campaign by Murray Energy CEO Robert Murray, who was an ardent supporter of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
In its statement, which became public the day after the layoffs, Murray Energy blamed the Obama administration for instituting policies that will close down "204 American coal-fired power plants by 2014" and for drastically reducing the market for coal.
The regulations that will close many of those plants were actually implemented during President George H.W. Bush's time in office, said Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president of the United Mine Workers of America. Power generation companies have been aware of them for decades, he said.
Industry trends have also put coal-fired plants at a higher risk for retirement. In its annual Energy Outlook, the Energy Information Administration reports that 49 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity will be retired in the next eight years. That represents about one-sixth of the existing coal capacity in the nation and less than 5 percent of total electricity generation in the U.S.
"Lower natural gas prices, higher coal prices, slower economic growth, and the implementation of environmental rules all play a role in the retirements," the EIA report states.
KSL sent emails Friday to Murray Energy officials seeking additional information about the layoffs and the company's reason for them. In response, those officials provided the text of a "solemn prayer" Murray offered during a private meeting Wednesday with about 50 employees, and the coal magnate's "Outline of America's Future."
In his prayer, Murray asked God to grant him and his employees forgiveness "for the decisions that we are now forced to make." He also asked for God's "guidance in this drastic time with the drastic decisions that will be made to have any hope of our survival as an American business enterprise."
"I read that and I was absolutely appalled that he would even look to God," Dalpiaz, who isn't a fan of Murray or his non-union mining operations, said.
"He ought to try to get forgiveness from the employees (and) from the widows around here," Dalpiaz said, making reference to the 2007 tragedy at the Murray-owned Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County that killed nine miners and injured six others.
Dalpiaz said Utah is on track to produce about the same amount of coal this year that it has in past years. He also pointed out that the surplus of natural gas in the U.S., and not the Obama administration, is responsible for soft coal prices.
As for Murray Energy, the company has a history of laying off miners around the holidays, according to Dalpiaz, and is simply using the outcome of the election as cover.
"Bob Murray does this every year," the union boss said. "We don't have an election every single year."
Back at the Department of Workforce Services, Steele said they've only seen a few miners come in to file for unemployment benefits.
"They can do pretty much everything on our website," she said. "So some of them are just calling and asking, 'Is it like last time? Do I just need to login?'"
KSL reached out to several miners and to members of their families Friday. None of them wanted to comment publicly on the layoffs, citing fears that it might jeopardize their ability to return to the mines.