Coal Tattoo

Sen. Byrd on coal: Wasn’t anybody paying attention?

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A week ago, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., issued a call for the coal industry to “embrace the future,” a world where greenhouse gas emissions are limited and the negative effects of mountaintop removal coal mining are not only acknowledged, but maybe even addressed in some meaningful way.

I wonder how Sen. Byrd is feeling about now, because it looks like nobody on either side of the major debates facing the coal industry paid a bit of attention to a darned word he said.

Sen. Byrd called on the people of his state — and especially elected officials and those in the coal industry — to seek common ground, to find ways to address the real problems of global warming and mountaintop removal damage, while continuing to keep coal a part of the nation’s energy mix. On climate change, for example, Sen. Byrd spoke directly to those who continue to insist there is no such thing, and therefore no need to pass legislation to address it:

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say, “Deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

The first reaction I saw to Sen. Byrd’s statement was from the group Appalachian Voices, which declared on its Web site that the  senator had made a “complete turnaround” of his position on mountaintop removal. Though unsaid, the clear suggestion was that Byrd now sided with environmental groups who want to ban mountaintop removal altogether. Is it significant that Sen. Byrd, who has so long championed coal, offered such a public scolding of the industry and its backers? Yes. But nowhere in that commentary did Byrd say mountaintop removal should be stopped.

And now this week, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin is nearly beside himself — letting slip out and then apologizing for using a minor curse-word on statewide radio — and practically demanding that the longest serving senator in the history of this country explain himself:

Senator Byrd really truly deserves the opportunity, if there’s any misunderstanding, and right now there is misunderstanding, does he support mountaintop (removal mining) or does he wish to have mountaintop (removal mining) abolished?

Is the Senator against certain types of mining because he’s trying to preserve the traditional minings that we have?  Or he thinks that we can bring everybody together to where we can find a balance to do a little of everything?


With all due respect to my good friend the governor, he ought to read Sen. Byrd’s statement again. It’s not all that hard to understand, that is, if you want to understand the senator’s message and learn something from it about where West Virginia is heading.

Regarding mountaintop removal, Sen. Byrd noted the obvious, that — like mechanization of the underground mines, it takes fewer workers:

… In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment … The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals.

And Sen. Byrd made it clear that national policymakers in Congress don’t like mountaintop removal, reflecting what he said is the view of their constituents:

… the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington … Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens.

Sen. Byrd continued:

… Most people understand that America cannot meet its current energy needs without coal, but there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Congress to the mountaintop removal method of mining it.


BUT, and here’s the kicker if you’re an environmentalist who wants Byrd to help ban mountaintop removal (and note the use of “we” in this next part):

We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground — but we will not reach it by fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy.

Byrd also chided environmentalists who oppose all coal:

… There is no available alternative energy supply that could immediately supplant the use of coal for base load power generation in America. That is a stubborn fact that vexes some in the environmental community, but it is a reality.

Sen. Byrd further indicated his interest in seeking a solution for all sides, adding:

As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions of the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.

As much as anything else, Sen. Byrd took everyone to task for their refusal to compromise and, especially, for the use of out-of-control rhetoric, and for the screaming matches and efforts to drown out the other side that have characterized so much of the debate of late.

Sen. Byrd called Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts’ suggestion that West Virginia’s congressional delegate block health-care reform unless President Obama backs off the mountaintop removal issue “beyond foolish” and “morally indefensible.” Here’s more of what he said:

Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive … When coal industry representatives stir up public anger toward federal regulatory agencies, it can damage the state’s ability to work with those agencies to West Virginia’s benefit.

So, what’s been the reaction to all of this?

steveroberts-web.jpgFirst of all, business leaders simply don’t want to believe that Sen. Byrd is taking this sort of tack with them. Last week, West Virginia Chamber of Commerce President Steve Roberts left me this quote on my voice mail, responding to that part where the senator called Roberts’ actions “morally indefensible”:

Sen. Byrd’s strong language is uncharacteristic of Sen. Byrd, at least in terms of using that kind of language to a constituent.

I found it to be uncharacteristic and I forgive him for that. I don’t think that is the tone he intended to take or would have taken if he had stopped to think about it.

The Chamber has continued to attack what it calls the Obama administration’s “War on Coal,” and Friends of Coal, citing the potential layoffs of 500 CONSOL miners in Clay County, is telling its members:

The message is clear … that the claims by anti-mining elitists and environmental extremists that they are concerned about the people of West Virginia are hollow and false. It is also clear that their claims of opposition ONLY to mountaintop removal mining are equally false and hollow.


And of course, a couple hundred coal miners showed up outside the WVDEP building on Monday, intent on yelling so loud — and blaring coal truck horns so much — that folks they disagree with wouldn’t get their say.

But the environmental community hasn’t responded in a much more sensible manner. At that rally over at WVDEP, at least one speaker I heard pointed to the crowed of Massey Energy workers and said that pretty soon they would all be out of a job. The environmentalists cheered at that thought.

Coalfield media outlets haven’t performed much better.

Hoppy, for example, was mostly concerned about watching how other West Virginia politicians reacted, to see if he could detect any lessening of Sen. Byrd’s traditional influence over other state elected officials.

And few other media outlets, other than the Gazette, have included any detailed explanation in their stories about the CONSOL layoffs so readers could understand how the company could easily have avoided this situation. The Daily Mail’s news stories certainly haven’t done that — and my lands, those layoffs have the DM’s right-wing columnist, Don Surber, so out of his head that he claimed of the air quality in the Kanawha Valley:

I live near a coal-fired power plant. I will put our air up against any in the land.

(Memo to Surber: Air quality in the Kanawha Valley exceeds federal standards for particulate matter and smog. Earlier this year, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the Kanawha Valley has lagged behind other parts of the nation where people are living longer lives because the air pollution here hasn’t improved as much as in other parts of the country.)

About the only folks who seemed to be listening to Sen. Byrd were the Charleston Rotarians, who organized and hosted a reasonable, rationale and polite discussion earlier this week about the economic impacts of cap-and-trade legislation on West Virginia.

So where does that leave us? Well, as Sen. Byrd pointed out, there is a growing segment of the business community that embraces action on global warming. It’s led by American Electric Power, the United Mine Workers union and other who think working hard to make carbon capture and sequestration work is the answer to coal’s future. In Sen. Byrd’s words:

The truth is that some form of climate legislation will likely become public policy because most American voters want a healthier environment. Major coal-fired power plants and coal operators in West Virginia have wisely already embraced this reality, and are making significant investments to prepare.

But what about mountaintop removal? Sen. Byrd advocates seeking “a prudent and profitable middle ground.” He doesn’t say what that is, but concedes “we have our work cut out for us in finding” it.

Yesterday, the new director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, Joe Pizarchik, talked a little bit about this in his first media interview:

There are genuine interests and legitimate concerns about that. I certainly can appreciate how having an area where maybe they grew up or maybe their ancestors lived and they’ve got a lot of heritage there, having that environment so drastically changed by that practice, I can appreciate them having the desire to see that that practice not occur and destroy what they’ve come to cherish and grow.  That makes a lot of sense.

In trying to figure out how to deal with that, we still have that statutory provision that allows for that activity to occur. Now, is it occurring in accordance with the standards? Should there be more limitations on it? Should there be more measures taken to protect? Should there be some areas where the activity will not occur?

I think all of those questions are valid questions for which we are seeking input on how to strike that balance.

Pizarchik says that OSMRE hopes to examine these questions as part of its ongoing rulemaking on the stream buffer zone rule.  Of course, that rulemaking isn’t expected to produce an actual proposed rule, let alone a final rule, until early 2011. And many of these sorts of possible ways to limit mountaintop removal damage have already been examined in great detail, only to be rejected by the Bush administration.

The one thing that Sen. Byrd seemed to be getting at is that this yelling and screaming, this name-calling, angry confrontations, intimidation and — perhaps above all — refusal to even consider compromise, isn’t getting West Virginia anywhere. We’re fighting old battles, while the rest of the nation and world are moving into the future.

Sen. Byrd concluded:

West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear: The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Which course do you want to choose?