WEST FRANKFORT — The message emanating from the Old King Coal main stage Saturday afternoon was clear: “Stop the war on coal.”
Coal supporters from around as well as outside of the region packed the lot east of West Frankfort City Hall for the Rally for Illinois Coal Jobs, many waving signs emblazoned with pro-coal slogans, to listen to a throng of speakers that included Murray Energy CEO Bob Murray, Illinois Coal Association president Phil Gonet and number of other coal advocates and politicians from around the state.
Gonet acknowledged a recent upturn in coal jobs and production around the state, but quickly added a caveat that an underlying threat to the industry persists. Although the rally was billed as nonpolitical, Gonet quickly offered his opinion on President Obama’s stance on coal.
“Even though we are having a nice increase in jobs here in Illinois, coal jobs are up 20 percent in two years. Illinois coal production was up 13 percent last year,” Gonet said. “But I want to tell you, that could be short-lived. We’ve got an administration in Washington that has one thing on its mind—to put coal out of business. And we can’t let that happen.
“I want to be clear today,” he said. “Some said this is not a rally about politics and it isn’t, it’s about coal. But I want to be clear right from the beginning, if you are for coal, you can’t be for the present administration, you can’t be for President Obama.”
Murray, speaking to a crowd that included several hundreds of his employees from American Coal Company’s Galatia Mine, also pointed to the policies of the president as not only a strain on the coal industry, but on energy in general. He also cited natural gas and Obama’s support of alternate energy as a primary reason that coal production has declined from record numbers.
‘It makes no difference whether you are a Democrat or Republican, virtually all members of either party and their representatives in politics support good American jobs,” Murray said. “But today there is an extreme exception. There is no question that the United States coal industry is being destroyed by the actions of Barack H. Obama and his radical followers and supporters.”
Murray said he has worked closely with Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney since 2008 and that he supports his “all the above” energy policy, which includes coal as an integral component. Murray said he recently was present at a pair of Romney speeches in which coal was played a large portion and was mentioned before any other forms of energy.
Page 2 of 2 - “Take it from me, Governor Romney gets it,” Murray said.
Roughly five minutes into Murray’s speech, a voice from the crowd shouted, “I thought this wasn’t going to be political?”
In turn, Murray responded, “This is very political. That’s what the coal industry is all about.”
Following another short exchange, Murray said, “I’ve been invited to speak. When I’m done, you can speak, but until I’m done, you shut up.” Murray’s words drew a positive reaction from the crowd and the heckler, along with another man who was upset at Murray’s speech, were eventually escorted from the rally by West Frankfort Police Department officers.
Murray continued to speak out against mining policies, including the Stream Buffer Zone Rule and air quality standards.
“I’m for the health of our employees, but MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) has been pushing a one-milligram standard,” Murray said. “We’ve run studies, $2 million worth, (it) doesn’t improve your health at all.”
Area politicians John Bradley and Gary Forby also spoke briefly on behalf of coal jobs and were joined by Treasurer Dan Rutherford and State Sen. Kirk Dillard who serves the 24th District in the northern part of Illinois. Other coal industry advocates such as West Frankfort’s Leonard Hopkins, environment and fuels manager at Southern Illinois Power Co-op, and Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Coal Association.