Coal Tattoo

What can we learn from Randy Huffman’s gaffe?

Yesterday had to be a bit embarrassing for WVDEP Secretary Randy Huffman.

When last I spoke with him, Randy was insisting he didn’t say that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency would  “pay the price” for its new water quality guidance on surface mining.

But a few minutes later, WVDEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco called to tell me that in fact Randy had made those and other inflammatory remarks to Associated Press reporter Vicki Smith. Randy didn’t call me himself. He was busy on the phone, apologizing to EPA officials.

Randy’s prepared statement, issued later by Kathy Cosco, contained this interesting sentence:

It is easy to lose focus in this debate that the purpose of all of our efforts is the protection of the state’s water quality.

Folks in West Virginia’s environmental community would probably read that a bit differently than Randy intended it … Given the way WVDEP sometimes speaks and acts, they would say, it is hard to remember that the agency is the Department of Environmental Protection.

In fact, Randy had earlier in the day recalled to me part of the discussion in Gov. Joe Manchin’s closed-door meeting with coalfield citizens a few months ago.

The way Randy told the story, one of the citizens was giving him the speech about how WVDEP’s duty isn’t to worry about protecting jobs, but to work to protect the state’s environment.  Gov. Manchin interrupted, though, and told the citizen:

He works for me, and I do worry about jobs.

The story reminded me of hearing Gov. Manchin wonder aloud several times following the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster about why, if the Massey Energy mine was so dangerous, safety inspectors didn’t order it closed.  Gov. Manchin mentioned this again in his testimony to the House Labor Committee during a field hearing in Beckley:

Why did serious safety violations repeatedly occur at Upper Big Branch? Were the miners concerned about their safety? Were miners threatened or intimidated from speaking out? If state or federal regulators knew the mine was unsafe, why was it allowed to continue to operate?

Does Gov. Manchin really wonder why a government inspector would hesitate to shut down a coal mine? Does any coalfield politician and Friend of Coal really not understand why the folks who run their regulatory agencies don’t take stronger action before disasters occur?

You’ve got to hand it to Randy Huffman for standing up and admitting his remarks went too far. But it’s not the first time that some of Randy’s comments came off as if his agency was speaking for the West Virginia Coal Association, instead of for the people of our state. And perhaps there’s something more that could be learned here, about the way we — and especially our political leaders — talk about the coal industry and the important issues that face it and our region as we move into the future.

Despite his occasional calls for calm in the coalfields, Gov. Manchin has been pretty serious about fanning the flames over the last two years as the mountaintop removal issue has heated up to the point of violence.

Other West Virginia political leaders will go to great lengths as well to be seen as Friends of Coal … take the recent misstatements by Sen. Jay Rockfeller regarding CCS and regarding how much of our electricity comes from coal.  Or look at the lengths Congressman Nick Rahall goes to in order to appear entirely pro-coal, ignoring his responsibility to ensure the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is doing its job policing strip mining.

All of these political leaders like to talk about “balance.” But they also go out of their way to squelch anything that smells of real discussion of the negative side of the industry. They love anything that promotes coal, and will jump up and down and scream if anyone even tries to provide a balanced accounting of the costs and benefits.

And if the politicians miss a beat and don’t do so, West Virginia business leaders are quick to step in. Take the response from the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce to a pretty balanced report on the benefits and costs to the state government budget from the coal industry.

Without pointing out any major errors in the report, the Chamber’s PR operation (now run by one of Massey President Don Blankenship’s former operatives) issued a statement attacking the report authors:

“This report was created by people who are staunchly ant-coal, oppose job growth in the production sector, and who seek to drive away the coal and manufacturing industries which pay the highest wages, offer the best benefits, and fuel much of West Virginia’s economy,” said Steve Roberts, President of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy supports a government takeover of health care, higher taxes for those who create jobs, increasing our national debt, and other anti-jobs, anti-economic growth policies.

“If West Virginia ever hopes to make progress and improve its economic situation and be able to compete in the global economy, we have to start listening to people who have an ownership stake in West Virginia, have created jobs, invested in a business, and are not dependent on government or the philanthropy of others for their survival.”

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.

But given the way other political and business leaders react to any discussion of  coal’s negative impacts and doing something about them,  does anyone really wonder why Randy Huffman would go a little too far in his rhetoric about the U.S. EPA, or why a government inspector might think twice about shutting down a coal mine?