Coal Tattoo

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

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?