New commentary from Sen. Robert C. Byrd: Coal industry must respect miners, the land and the people who live in the West Virginia coalfields

May 5, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

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By U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va.

The recent explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in my home county of Raleigh, which killed 29 West Virginians and injured 2 others, has brought West Virginia statewide sorrow and worldwide attention.

Reflecting on President John F. Kennedy’s death, Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom.”

As we seek to understand how and why the Upper Big Branch disaster occurred, we might also re-examine conventional wisdom about the future of the coal industry in our state.

Americans depend mightily on our coal to meet their energy needs. Coal is the major source of electricity in 32 states, and produces roughly half of all the electricity consumed in the United States.

As West Virginians, our birthright is coal. The ancient fossil is abundant here, and is as emblematic of our heritage and cultural identity as the black bear, the cardinal, and the rhododendron.

Indeed, the coal severance tax codifies the philosophy that the coal belongs to all West Virginians, and that they deserve meaningful compensation for its extraction. This philosophy has also been embraced nationwide, through the Black Lung Excise Tax, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fee, and several other existing and proposed programs that provide additional compensation to the people and places that produce our coal, oil, gas, and other energy resources.

Coal brings much needed jobs and revenue to our economy. But the industry has a larger footprint, including inherent responsibilities that must be acknowledged by the industry.

First and foremost, the coal industry must respect the miner and his family. A single miner’s life is certainly worth the expense and effort required to enhance safety. West Virginia has some of the highest quality coal in the world, and mining it should be considered a privilege, not a right. Any company that establishes a pattern of negligence resulting in injuries and death should be replaced by a company that conducts business more responsibly. No doubt many energy companies are keen for a chance to produce West Virginia coal.

The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.

The sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected. The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities. Our coal mining communities do not have to be marked by a lack of economic diversity and development that can potentially squelch the voice of the people. People living in coal communities deserve to have a free hand in managing their own local affairs and public policies without undue political pressure to submit to the desires of industry.

We have coal companies in West Virginia which go out of their way to operate safely and with minimal impact on our environment. Those companies should be commended and rewarded.

But the coal industry has an immensely powerful lobby in Washington and in Charleston. For nearly a hundred years they have come to our presidents, our members of Congress, our legislators, our mayors, and our county commissioners to demand their priorities. It is only right that the people of West Virginia speak up and make the coal industry understand what is expected of it in return.

The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.


28 Responses to “New commentary from Sen. Robert C. Byrd: Coal industry must respect miners, the land and the people who live in the West Virginia coalfields”

  1. Lorelei Scarbro says:

    Wow. Respect is a new word for the coal industry in West Virginia.
    Thank you Senator Byrd. We must continue to say often and everywhere that our people are our most valuable resource and we must be treated as such.

  2. robbe says:

    THANKS Sen. Byrd!! This is the kind of wise leadership we need now, and in the future.

  3. Josh says:

    Thank you Senator. There is a reason you are one of the most respected men in your chamber.

    If you could only get your Junior Senator to feel the same way…

  4. Monty says:

    I think Astonishing is not too strong a word for this.

  5. bulltownwv says:

    Thank you, Sen Byrd , for always having the courage to honor your convictions, to speak for those with no power or clout, and to call for an end to MTR and the other horrors of coal.
    We need coal but on OUR terms not an outside capitalistic company and monger.
    I cannot express my deep gratitude to Sen Byrd. To be an honorable man who is not hindered by the past.

  6. Clem Guttata says:

    Given the lack of mitigation capabilities in relation to selenium, this is indeed a call for the end of MTR coal mining: “if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.”

  7. Kayte Miller says:

    I love you West Virginia!!

  8. eric Autenreith says:

    Yes…Wow! Thank you Senator Byrd. I hope you can stay around ling enough so the rest of the representatives can see what good and decent leadership looks like.

    AND i hope the good people who have been seeking your help on these issues will forcefully echo and support your leadership.

  9. rhmooney3 says:

    The swagger behind a mining tragedy

    By Susanna Rodell
    7:15 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, 2010

    http://www.ajc.com/opinion/the-swagger-behind-a-520788.html

    After I signed on as editorial page editor of the Charleston Gazette, West Virginia’s premier newspaper, the first visitor to the editorial board was Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship.

    I arrived in 2003, and I’d been mostly delighted with this quirky, gorgeous and still isolated piece of America. But I quickly bumped up against West Virginia’s dark side: the ravages of coal mining. The mountains were being raped. Mountaintop removal was destroying much of the last wild landscape in the eastern U.S.

    —-

    In fact, coal is probably more important to the rest of the country than it is to West Virginians. Most of the relatively cheap electricity we depend on comes from coal. Thanks to automation (including the scary, stories-high machines that efficiently chew up the mountains), more coal is mined today with fewer workers. All those “clean” cars we intend to plug in will have to get their power from somewhere: chances are, from coal-fired plants.

    So yes, while the swaggering Blankenship deserves considerable blame, there’s another enemy in this story: the one we see in the mirror. The least we can do, as participants in this drama, is to remember who’s risking their lives to keep our lights on, and encourage our lawmakers to keep up the pressure on Big Coal and its enablers to clean up their act. Make sure they can’t hide behind the mountains any more.

  10. Vnxq809 says:

    Editorial page editor and she says Blankenship was a WVU grad???…..Maybe I’m missing something here….

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Editing

    Vnxq809

  11. rhmooney3 says:

    (From Wikipedia)
    Don Blankenship is a graduate of Matewan High School and earned a degree in accounting from Marshall University in 1972. He was the recipient of Marshall University’s “Most Distinguished Alumni” award and inducted into the Lewis College of Business Hall of Fame in 1999.

    Blankenship is certified as a public accountant. In 2002, he was inducted into the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants’ Business and Industry Hall of Fame and recognized by the West Virginia Society of CPA’s as an Outstanding Member in Business and Industry. Blankenship was also inducted into the Tug Valley Mining Institute Hall of Fame.

    Blankenship joined a Massey subsidiary, Rawl Sales & Processing Co., in 1982. Since then he has served the company in a number of capacities. He was promoted to president of Massey Coal Services, Inc. (1989 -1991), then president and chief Operating Officer from 1990 to 1991.

    Blankenship has been Chairman, Chief Executive Officer and President of A.T. Massey Coal Company, Inc., a wholly owned and sole, direct operating subsidiary, since 1992. He is the first non-Massey family member to be in charge of the company.

    I put just put this together to give a full view:
    http://groups.google.com/group/bob-mooney/web/the-coal-don

  12. Vnxq809 says:

    Bob Mooney,

    My posting was a feeble attempt @ sarcasm………..

    Vnxq809

  13. rhmooney3 says:

    Okay.

    Here’s a feeble attempt for a real fix:

    Congress should impose an additional fee on every ton of coal mined (0.5-1%) and then annually award it to each mine (proportioned 30% to the owner and 70% to the individual miners, not all employees) pro-rated based on their quarterly safety performances. The state and federal inspectors of the mines would be recognized with special certificates and performance appraisal considerations.

    A larger portion (60-75%) would go to underground mines and miners do to their increased safety risks.

    The ongoing performances of every mine would be online. (This would also generate side-bets and many other incentives, especially pride.) Even being ahead during only one quarter would be very rewarding.

    Best management pratices and best innovations would be recognized financially on a quarterly basis too.

    It would be for a five-year test period.

    The concept should come jointly from the UMWA, NMA, state governors and others.

  14. Mammaw says:

    Yes, indeed! The people of West Virginia have long deserved better treatment than they have received at the hands of the coal industry. Coal has given us a legacy of poverty, poor health, and environmental degradation.

  15. Clem Guttata says:

    I have a question for those more knowledgeable of coal mining laws/regs.

    Sen. Byrd said, “Any company that establishes a pattern of negligence resulting in injuries and death should be replaced by a company that conducts business more responsibly. No doubt many energy companies are keen for a chance to produce West Virginia coal.”

    Is there anything in existing laws/regs that allow for a company-wide loss of certification/license to mine coal? Or, does that sound more like a suggestion for future legislation?

  16. Area Man says:

    Clem, I know that individual people can be banned by law from coal mining; ask Norm Steenstra.

    But if you look at how Massey is set up – something like 20 different mining companies under a shell – then the quote from Godfather 2 comes to mind: “Yeah, senator, they have a lot of ‘buffers'”. For many reasons.

  17. bulltownwv says:

    Will Byrd now suggest legislation to stop MTR and the other horrors we are forced to contend with due to coal mining operators?

  18. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Vnxq809,

    For the record, Ms. Rodell is no longer affiliated with the Gazette …

    Ken.

  19. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Clem,

    The Surface Mining Act allows companies to be “permit blocked” for unpaid fines, un-fixed violations and unreclaimed mine sites … That’s in section 510(c) of the Act, http://www.osmre.gov/topic/SMCRA/SMCRA.shtm#title5

    Some folks may recall there was a huge battle in the 1990s over whether Massey should be permit blocked for bad acts by contracting companies mining its operations. I believe Massey generally won that legal fight.

    There are huge fights over the regulations to implement the “ownership and control” language in SMCRA, which decides which companies own and control badly operated mines for purposes of, among other things, permit block actions. It’s too complicated for me to get into here, and I’m not an expert on it.

    I am not aware of similar language in the Mine Safety Act, but there is broad language for MSHA to go to federal court to seek injunctions against bad operators … MSHA just doesn’t use that authority.

    Ken.

  20. Frank says:

    Senator Byrd was not always so honest. I recall his blistering words in support of mountaintop removal and associated valley fills immediately following Judge Haden’s ruling in October, 1999. Back then Byrd and coal industry booster Governor Cecil Underwood were singing from the same songsheets.

    Byrd tried to overturn the decision on the floor of the Senate. Then, like Underwood, Byrd warned darkly of an end to the West Virginia coal industry.

  21. rhmooney3 says:

    This article provides some indication of the “ownership and control” fight of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

    There is still an OSM Applicant/Violator System Office in Lexington, KY.

    3/9/1992
    http://www.nytimes.com/1992/03/09/us/coal-industry-contests-law-on-restoring-lands.html
    (Excerpt)
    Under the 1977 law, the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, companies cannot obtain permits for new mines if they fail to restore strip-mined land or have existing environmental violations at any other mines. The law was routinely ignored until the Interior Department began using a computer system to check whether a company seeking a permit had any outstanding environmental violations at other mines it owned or controlled.

    The computer system was established in 1984 and improved in 1990 under agreements that the former Interior Secretary, William P. Clark, and Mr. Lujan signed to settle a lawsuit brought by an environmental group from Tennessee. The Federal District Court here approved both agreements, and the Interior Department has consistently defended them from attack by the coal industry.

    On March 16 the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit is scheduled to consider arguments by the coal industry that the 1990 agreement to refine the computer system should be vacated. They say the suit should have been filed not in Washington but in a place where there are strip mines.

    In a surprise move, the department has adopted an almost identical argument in the case. It said in papers filed Jan. 31 that because the lower court had no jurisdiction, the appellate court should dismiss or transfer the Tennessee group’s lawsuit to another court and vacate the agreement.

    “Frankly, we’re just delighted that the Government has done this,” said Edward M. Green, general counsel of the American Mining Congress, a coal industry trade group. “All of a sudden the Government sees the light.”

  22. rhmooney3 says:

    From the Surface Mining and Reclamation Control Act of 1977:

    These are from SMCRA Title 201, Creation of the Office:

    (c) The Secretary, acting through the Office, shall —

    (7) maintain a continuing study of surface mining and reclamation operations in the United States;

    (8) develop and maintain an Information and Data Center on Surface Coal Mining, Reclamation, and Surface Impacts of Underground Mining, which will make such data available to the public and the Federal, regional, State, and local agencies conducting or concerned with land use planning and agencies concerned with surface and underground mining and reclamation operations;

    (11) monitor all Federal and State research programs dealing with coal extraction and use and recommend to Congress the research and demonstration projects and necessary changes in public policy which are designated to (A) improve feasibility of underground coal mining, and (B) improve surface mining and reclamation techniques directed at eliminating adverse environmental and social impacts;

  23. rhmooney3 says:

    The Issue is government just pretending to do its job. This is another example of it.

    5/5/10
    BP — Big Problem — Slick Operators
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/#36976376 (6:31 minutes)

    The Interior Department exempted BP’s calamitous Gulf of Mexico drilling operation from a detailed environmental impact analysis last year, according to government documents, after three reviews of the area concluded that a massive oil spill was unlikely.

    The MMS mandates that companies drilling in some areas identify under NEPA what could reduce a project’s environmental impact. But Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the service grants between 250 and 400 waivers a year for Gulf of Mexico projects. He added that Interior has now established the “first ever” board to examine safety procedures for offshore drilling. It will report back within 30 days on BP’s oil spill and will conduct “a broader review of safety issues,” Lee-Ashley said.

    But Interior Department spokesman Matt Lee-Ashley said the service grants between 250 and 400 waivers a year for Gulf of Mexico projects. He added that Interior has now established the “first ever” board to examine safety procedures for offshore drilling. It will report back within 30 days on BP’s oil spill and will conduct “a broader review of safety issues,” Lee-Ashley said.

  24. clay ton says:

    re: New commentary from Sen. Robert C. Byrd: Coal industry must respect miners, the land and the people

    “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom.” JFK
    In coal’s case ‘the living’ have a long way to go to achieve wisdom.

    In the eyes of the coal operators, coal is the Thanksgiving turkey, WV, is the disposable aluminum platter, and the miners and inhabitants are the carcass.

    Coal is a blessing and a curse. We (mankind) are stuck with this source of energy that is probably slowly killing all life. Coal will continue to be mined, as we cannot live without it. Coal needs to mined safely and the people who are engaged in the work underground have special needs which need to be fully addressed and the lives of the people living near these highly industrial areas need to be protected. Coal mining needs to benefit from 21st century technology to minimize black lung. Methane from coal mines needs to be contained or harvested for use as natural gas to minimize its danger to underground miners and the earths environment. http://coalswarm.typepad.com/coalswarm/welcome.html
    James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Space Institute, has said that ending emissions from coal “is 80% of the solution to the global warming crisis.”

    Senator Byrd of WV offers flowery words and terms but nothing actionable.

    “People living in coal communities deserve to have a free hand in managing their own local affairs and public policies without undue political pressure to submit to the desires of industry.”

    This is ‘pie in the sky’ nonsense as the populations in the coal districts are not large enough nor are the constituents wealthy enough to lobby on their own behalf. Oversight at the highest levels of government must assure the rights of the miners and enforce laws written to protect mine workers and coal communities; miners are a minority.

    Senator Byrd: “As we seek to understand how and why the Upper Big Branch disaster occurred, we might also re-examine conventional wisdom about the future of the coal industry in our state…Americans depend mightily on our coal..for half of all the electricity ”

    We know methane caused the explosion and we also know methane is not being scientifically managed as it could be. In addition it seems to be common knowledge that Don Blankenship and Massey Energy are ‘bad actors’, so I ask ‘what’s to understand’….we need action.

    The senator mentions several existing taxes:

    re: Coal Severance Tax This appears to be a slush fund for the state and nothing goes back to the miners and little to the communities.

    re: Black Lung Excise Tax. Where is there a provision in the tax to establish preventative measures for black lung? The breathing apparatus miners wear today are not comfortable and need improving. In addition, high performance stationary and portable dust filtration systems need to be invented and introduced underground to continuously collect coal and rock duct.
    “Of the estimated $1,300 million of taxes collected on coal exports, an estimated $270 million would have to be (or has been) refunded. The remainder, approximately $1,000 million of unconstitutionally collected taxes, cannot be refunded due to statute of limitation of the filing of valid and timely claims.” http://www.policyarchive.org/handle/10207/3980

    re: Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fee A Federal slush fund that is meant to restore the environment, nothing goes to improve the miners lot.

    Mr. Mooney, I think your “real fix” has some merit, people respond to incentives (carrots). All the taxes on coal need to be reviewed and possibly revised. I feel it is time for a national approach to the long-term problems coal use presents and consumers need to be involved in any progress. We need a ‘JKF’ space program approach and the tools are available; the nation only needs the will to make things better. Get the lobbyists out of health and safety issues; coal is a part of our national security not just a revenue stream.

    Coal workers, the people of the coal communities and American need action not simple rhetoric.

    Contact me: coallawreview@yahoo.com

  25. freedom says:

    Senator Byrd seems to have finally recognized the inherent dangers of coal mining including the devestating environmental impact of the industry itself and health and safety issues associated with mining as well as the burning of coal for power generation. On the other hand, Mr. Rahall still seems to be hanging back with the rest of the dinosaurs who try to convince us that coal mining is beneficial, does not harm the environment and is safe for miners. WV needs to reduce its economic reliance on coal mining and diversify its economy.

  26. […] Sen. Robert C. Byrd has wisely encouraged the coal industry and the rest of West Virginia to “embrace the future” and to respect our state’s land and people. […]

  27. […] after 29 miners died in the Upper Big Branch Mining Disaster, Sen. Byrd renewed his call, demanding that the coal industry respect miners, coalfield communities, and the land from which […]

  28. […] the second of his two major commentaries on coal, Sen. Byrd closed with this […]

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