What path will Rep. Nick J. Rahall take now?

November 4, 2010 by Ken Ward Jr.

West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, left, reacts to being announced the winner in his congressional race, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, at the Democratic headquarters in Beckley, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

Well, the coal industry threw quite a lot at Rep. Nick Rahall this time around. They’ve gone after Rep. Rahall before, but when the totals are in, the money spent — and the rhetoric and racial slurs tossed about — will probably end up easily topping past efforts at unseating the Democrat from his seat representing Southern West Virginia in Congress.

The last numbers I saw showed Rahall easily defeating Don Blankenship’s friend Spike Maynard, Rahall got 55 percent of the vote to Maynard’s 45 percent. He won 14 of the district’s 17 counties. He cruised in major coal counties like Boone, Logan and Mingo, getting more than 60 percent of the vote in each.

Of course, along the way, Rahall staked out a position that was way to the far edge of the pro-coal, protect-the-industry-at-all-costs side of mining issues, attacking the Obama administration and bashing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at every turn.

Rahall and some of his supporters — primarily the United Mine Workers — tried to use Maynard’s relationship with Blankenship against the Republican candidate. But you really didn’t hear Rahall even talking too terribly much about coal-mine safety issues or what another GOP vote in Congress might do to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s efforts to crack down on repeat violators of mine safety and health rules or end black lung disease.

You were more likely to hear Rep. Rahall bragging that he personally was keeping legislation bottled up that would have ended mountaintop removal coal mining, or threatening to block any funding for EPA’s efforts to reduce coal-mining pollution that scientists believe is causing pervasive and irreversible damage to the environment in the Appalachian coalfields.

This, of course, is the thing that leaves many folks who might otherwise support him holding their noses when they vote for Nick Rahall. Generally, most progressives would be his natural constituency. In Washington, Rep. Rahall has among the best voting records on environmental issues and his expertise on the Middle East makes him one of the leading voices for a reasonable U.S. foreign policy there.

But back home, Rahall has now made himself among the Faces of Coal — among the faces of those who support mountaintop removal. He barely admits its downsides, and  — perhaps worse — the fact that regardless of any federal rules or regulations, its days may be numbered.

Now, it wasn’t so terribly long ago that Congressman Rahall wasn’t on this bandwagon. When we published our original Mining the Mountains articles back in 1998 (see here and here), Rahall offered among the most harsh criticisms of the lax regulation of mountaintop removal by state and federal authorities.

Congressman Nick Rahall, right, and Barbara Mollohan check the returns in the war room at his home, Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2010, in Beckley, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jon C. Hancock)

In one story, Rep. Rahall called actions by the state Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement “inexcusable”:

This is not a case of whether you are for or against mountaintop removal operations. This is a matter of whether or not there has been compliance with federal law as it relates to how permits for these types of operations are reviewed and granted.

In another article, Rep. Rahall blasted OSMRE as being “out to lunch” in its oversight of West Virginia’s mining regulatory program:

I do not think they can use budget cuts as an excuse anymore, not when it comes to failing to catch problems of the magnitude that are now being uncovered in the permitting process for major mining operations. Simply put, the agency’s oversight has been a sham.

Of course, Rep. Rahall also quickly joined with Sen. Byrd and with other members of the West Virginia congressional delegation to try to overturn court rulings that would have limited mountaintop removal and required tougher oversight of the practice.

But while the continuing emergence of studies, data and personal stories about the damage from mountaintop removal had Sen. Byrd urging the coal industry to “embrace the future” and seeking to be an “honest broker” to solutions to the problems coal causes, we saw Rep. Rahall literally jumping out of a perfectly good airplane to show his allegiance to the industry.

So what now for the good congressman from the West Virginia Third?

First of all, the Republicans have taken back the House. So Rep. Rahall loses his powerful spot as chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.  His friends and fellow Democrats no longer chair other committees, so his ability to personally block a bill to ban mountaintop removal may have diminished.

But does anyone really believe that the GOP leadership is going to move such a bill anyway?

It seems far more likely that Republican House leaders will use their committee chairs to call in top EPA officials to investigate and bash the agency’s permit review process and new water quality standards.  Carol Raulston, spokeswoman for the National Mining Association, told me yesterday:

We do believe EPA, generally, will be the focus of several oversight hearings in the next Congress. Other business groups share NMA’s concerns about the process EPA has used to develop “guidance,” which serves as a standard, and the science underpinning many EPA actions. The latter concern is even shared by other government agencies that have asked for more input into EPA’s scientific methodology and findings.

We welcome further attention to EPA’s actions and hope it produces a more rational approach to coal mining in Appalachia, among other matters.

One of the lines out of Rep. Rahall’s office is that the problems he objected to regarding lax OSMRE and WVDEP have been fixed, and that now environmentalists are just pushing things too far in the other direction.

But testimony from citizens who appeared before Rahall’s Natural Resources Committee — at a hearing to mark the 30th anniversary of the federal strip-mining law he helped write — made it clear that wasn’t true.  After the hearing, Rahall’s staff promised to investigate these concerns … but here we are three years later, and we’ve seen nothing in the way of investigation or reforms.

Republican House leaders are going to come after EPA’s efforts to do what OSMRE and Rahall’s committee haven’t … just as the GOP will likely come after MSHA and try to curb efforts to toughen and expand federal mine safety enforcement.

When that happens, which side is Rep. Nick Rahall going to be on?

3 Responses to “What path will Rep. Nick J. Rahall take now?”

  1. Matt Wasson says:


    It’s indisputable that a Speaker Boehner makes passing the Clean Water Protection Act in the 112th Congress significantly more difficult, but a blanket statement that it’s impossible would not be accurate. Bills to end mountaintop removal have massive support in Congress and with the public, as Rep. Rahall himself as well and the late, great Senator Byrd have pointed out.

    Events beyond any of our control can change political realities in an instant. Should one of the lawsuits from the NMA or the state of West Virginia successfully overturn the EPA’s actions, there is almost nobody in Congress that would like to see a return to the Bush-era regulations (or lack thereof). Even staunch coal industry supporters recognize that mountaintop removal is the single most powerful rebuttal to the industry’s bogus “clean coal” marketing campaign. And in the event of, God forbid, another Buffalo Creek or Martin County disaster, even Rahall and Boehner might warm up to the Clean Water Protection Act – never underestimate the power of public outrage.

    As for Rahall himself, he is no dummy and is well aware that coal mining is a dead end for southern West Virginia, given the rapidly declining reserves. But, as you have pointed out, the political influence of the coal industry in Central Appalachia has long outlived it’s ability to create jobs and support communities in the region. The fact that Rahall’s district ranked 434th out of 435 Congressional districts in last year’s Gallup Well-Being rankings (Hal Rogers’ district in eastern Kentucky was 435th) is a clear indication of how his constituents are faring under is leadership. With even Arch Coal CEO Steve Leer projecting an additional 60 million ton decline in Central Appalachian production over the next few years, even Rahall will eventually have to go “Byrd” on the coal companies or he will have nobody left to represent.

    While Rahall may not exhibit the leadership qualities of the late Senator Byrd, he is no monster either, and sooner rather than later he will do what’s right for his constituents and stop caving to every whim of the coal industry. He may lose his seat as a result, but his constituents will thank him in the long run.

  2. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Thanks for your input on this … my point, of course, was just that it’s very difficult in Congress to move a major piece of legislation unless the majority leadership want it moved. Without extraordinary action by a huge number of members, moving this bill would require the leadership to put it on the agenda for a vote … and I just wonder if anybody really thinks that’s going to happen with a GOP-controlled Congress.

    I’m not sure what kind of incredible events would have to occur to make Rep. Boehner warm up to a ban on mountaintop removal.


  3. Wes Rolley says:

    Ken, for all of that, having Doc Hastings succeed Rahall as Chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources has the potential to be disastrous for this country.

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