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By Renee Schoof, McClatchy Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON — Money from coal companies has been fueling North Carolina Republican Senate candidate Thom Tillis’ race to unseat Sen. Kay Hagan (D-NC) including $21,100 from the nation’s largest privately owned coal company.

The contributions came from the Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. The owner and founder, Robert E. Murray, is a major backer of Republican candidates and a fierce opponent of President Barack Obama and the Environmental Protection Agency, especially over a proposal that would limit heat-trapping emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Murray Energy is Tillis’ fifth largest contributor, having received money from the owner, company officers, employees, and family members, and the company’s political action committee, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group.

The coal industry has not been a major political donor of Hagan’s, who is seeking a second term. But Duke Energy, the Charlotte-based power company that relies on coal as source of fuel, has been among her top 20 financial contributors.

The company’s employees, lobbyists, and political action committee have given her $20,400 between 2007 and 2014, the Center for Responsive Politics reported.

Tillis received the $21,100 from Murray and related individuals in the first quarter of this year. In all, company employees have given $522,093 to political candidates across the country in 2013 and so far in 2014.

All of the contributions from Murray Energy this campaign cycle have been to Republicans, except for $2,500 to Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), who’s running for re-election this year. Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC), who’s also running in November, has received $21,850.

Some Murray executives listed their occupation on the Federal Election Commission forms as “coal miner.” One of them, Ronald D. Koontz, is general manager of the Ohio Valley Coal Co., a Murray subsidiary, according to a 2012 company news release. He donated $1,000 to the Tillis campaign, part of more than $13,000 he has given to Republican candidates since 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Koontz did not answer calls for comment.

Wayne E. Conaway Jr., of Farmington, W.Va., who works in Murray Energy’s safety department, said he gave $375 to Tillis because Tillis supports coal. He said the company emphasized to employees that “we’ve got to get out and protect our livelihood.”

“We have no comment,” said Gary Broadbent, Murray Energy’s media director and assistant general counsel, in response to questions about the company’s support for Tillis.

But in a message on the company’s website, Robert Murray, who founded the company in 1988 with the purchase of a single mine, said his industry is “embattled from excessive federal government regulations and, to a lesser extent, by the increased use of natural gas for the generation of electricity.”

He added: “In my fifty-seven years of coal mining experience, I have never before seen the destruction of an industry that we are witnessing today, with reliable, low-cost electric power also being eliminated.”

In June, Murray Energy filed the first lawsuit against the EPA to try to block the rule on power plant emissions limits. The suit asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to prevent the EPA from implementing what the company said in a news release was “this illegal and disastrous rule on electric power generation.”

Twelve states filed a separate lawsuit against the administration on Aug. 1 in another attempt to stop the proposed rule: West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Wyoming.

Murray also has disagreed with the scientific view that the burning of coal and other fossil fuels is the main reason for warming of the planet. In an interview with West Virginia Executive Magazine for a story published in May, he was quoted as saying the Obama administration was lying about global warming. Murray contended that the Earth was cooling.

The company has 12 coal mines in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Utah and employs more than 7,300 people.

In 2007, a collapse at the company’s Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah killed six miners. Three more people died 10 days later in a rescue attempt. Murray subsidiaries agreed in 2012 that violations contributed to the accident, including improper mine design. The subsidiaries paid $1.15 million, which covered penalties for the collapse and the settlement of other violations at other Utah mines.

Besides Murray Energy, other coal company and mining industry political action committees have contributed to Tillis. Alliance Coal’s LLC PAC gave him $5,000 in June. Federal Election Commission records also show $10,000 from two PACS of the National Mining Association; $1,500 from the PAC of Arch Coal, Inc.; $2,000 from the Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. PAC; and $2,000 from Patriot Coal’s PAC.

Other coal company executives and employees also made individual contributions.

North Carolina in 2013 got 38 percent of its electricity from coal, according to the latest data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Photo via WikiCommons

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