Coal Tattoo

Last week, West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall received the Humane Legislator of the Year award from the Humane Society.

The group cited Congressman Rahall’s work on the Restore Our American Mustangs Act to overhaul the Interior Department’s management of wild horses on public lands and restore the prohibition on the commercial scale and slaughter of wild horses and burros.  The group also thanks Rahall for “skillfully guiding” 11 wildlife protection measures successfully through his Natural Resources Committee and to approval by the full House.

In response, Jeff Biggers wrote on The Huffington Post that the Human Society’s recognition of Rahall was the “Bogus Award of the Week“, because of Rahall’s refusal to publicly oppose mountaintop removal and work to oppose the practice:

This might be one of the Humane Society’s cruelest acts against animals, and humanity.

Wow, wild jack asses and horses can run free in the West.

What is the Humane Society thinking? Don’t they know about the nightmare of mountaintop removal …

It was quite an attack. Was it unfair or was it right on the money? I’ll let you decide that. But it did get me thinking once again about Nick Rahall and mountaintop removal, and about Rahall and the coal industry in general.


Representative Rahall accepts his Legislative Leader award from Nancy Perry, Vice President of Government Affairs for The Humane Society of the United States, and Michael Markarian, President of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

As I’ve written before, Rahall is in quite a fix on mountaintop removal, and his position on it is certainly in conflict with his great leadership on so many other environmental and conservation measures:

Well, Rahall is chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees public lands and a variety of environmental matters — everything from fisheries to, yes, enforcement of the 1977 federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.  And among national environmental groups, Rahall is not only considered a pretty reliable vote, but also a leader on many issues those groups care about. Consistently, Rahall votes nearly three-quarters of the time with the “pro-environment” votes ranked by the League of Conservation Voters.

At the same time, Rahall’s 3rd Congressional District of West Virginia makes up the heart of the state’s southern coalfields, the area where most of the big mountaintop removal has and is going on. And Rahall has supported mountaintop removal, though he has sometimes been critical of certain permitting practices, since as the failure of agencies to come up with a clear definition of approximate original contour or enforce post-mining land development requirements.

And since I wrote that last October, the political situation for Rahall certainly hasn’t gotten much better. He now has top Friend-of-Don-Blankenship Spike Maynard running for his seat, and Maynard is making this nonsense about Washington’s “War on Coal” a major issue.

Rahall doesn’t seem willing to step up — as Sen. Robert C. Byrd has done — and provide West Virginians with some honest talk about the tenuous future of the Central Appalachian coal industry. Instead, he’s reduced himself to urging Massey Energy to run its pro-coal ads in Washington, D.C., to help convince lawmakers and other policy leaders there how great the industry is.

It’s not so surprising, given the politics and economics of his district, that Rahall hasn’t come out publicly against mountaintop removal coal mining.

Still, Congressman Rahall is  a smart guy with a smart staff, and he’s in a position — despite his support for coal — to make this industry be a far more responsible corporate neighbor in the region he has represented in Congress for more than three decades.

And Rahall isn’t doing many of the things that he could … as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rahall has jurisdiction over the Department of Interior and he could use that position and that committee to hold some interesting hearings and push some tough legislation. I often wonder why he doesn’t do things like:

| Call in Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and OSMRE Director Joe Pizarchik for a committee hearing, and demand to know why they haven’t yet started writing a tougher and more clear definition of the approximate original contour reclamation standard. And if the Obama administration won’t take on the task, Rahall and his committee could put forward legislation to do it themselves.

| Haul some coal executives — maybe he could start with Blankenship — before his committee and ask them to explain why so few flattened mountaintop removal sites are being developed for new businesses or other community assets.

| Schedule another hearing with Salazar and Pizarchik, and demand to know how in the heck OSMRE is going to accomplish the tougher enforcement oversight it has promised given the budget cuts proposed for the agency by President Obama.

| And, while Rahall may not support the Obama administration’s proposal to stop spending money meant for abandoned mine cleanups on other projects, shouldn’t the Natural Resources Committee at least give the issue a full hearing so lawmakers are educated about the matter?

| Gosh, while Rahall has Salazar in a committee hearing, he might ask the Interior Secretary to explain how his agency continues to defend a sweeping 1996 “biological opinion” that says no coal mining operation anywhere would ever harm a threatened or endangered species.

| Rahall could start asking EPA and OSMRE some tough questions about why state agencies like the WVDEP are allowed to keep giving coal companies extension after extension to come into compliance with water quality limits for stuff like toxic selenium. He might ask why OSMRE and EPA let the WVDEP go for years without even bothering to look at discharge monitoring reports from coal-mining operations, and take testimony on whether enough has been done to fix that system since the EPA’s $20 million settlement with Massey.

And to be clear here, I’m not talking about a throw-away question during a budget hearing that deals with dozens of other issues … coal-mining’s environmental and community impacts are the biggest issue facing Rahall’s district — and if you consider the global warming pollution from coal in there, almost certainly the biggest environmental issue facing the country. These matters could be major investigative hearings in which Rahall and his committee could educate the rest of Congress and the American public.

Maybe he could start by scheduling just one little hearing, in which the authors of the Science journal article that found mountaintop removal’s environmental effects to be “pervasive and irreversible” could come in and testify about their findings … Congressman Rahall could even invite the coal industry to bring its own experts, and press them to explain what data or research they have to show that study is wrong.

Those guys from Massey with the “Nick Joe is Anti-Coal” signs aren’t voting for Congressman Rahall anyway … so what does he have to lose?

A few years back, Rahall held a committee hearing to mark the 30th anniversary of SMCRA (see previous links here and here). During that hearing, Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, told Rahall and his committee:

The coal-rich mountains of Central Appalachia are home to generations-old communities, and contain beautiful hollows through which thousands of miles of pristine and ecologically rich mountain streams flow. Mountaintop removal has already transformed huge expanses of one of the oldest mountain ranges in the world into a moonscape of barren plateaus and rubble.

Future generations will not forgive us for what we are now doing to the Appalachian mountains.

Rahall responded:

All right. Mr. Lovett,  everybody we have heard from so far today  seem to be the most negative of everybody. I mean, you state our future generations will not forgive us. You know, I take that as an affront. I go to bed at night and sleep soundly, and I think I am doing all I can to protect our environment and provide for jobs. But there is an insinuation there that I am not.

Sen. Byrd has urged other public officials to be “honest brokers” about the looming issues facing the coal industry, and made it clear that he will represent the interests of all of his constituents, not just the vocal and strident supporters of mountaintop removal.

Environmentalists and coalfield residents have a right to wonder when Nick Rahall is going to start following Sen. Byrd’s advice.