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Byrd calls for re-examination of state's relationship with coal

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sen. Robert C. Byrd on Wednesday called for a reconsideration of West Virginia's relationship with coal mining, saying the industry can't be allowed to dominate the state's politics while causing needless deaths and environmental damage.

"Coal brings much needed jobs and revenue to our economy," the West Virginia Democrat wrote in a new commentary. "But the industry has a larger footprint, including inherent responsibilities that must be acknowledged by the industry."

Byrd issued the piece in response to the nation's worst coal-mining disaster in 40 years, the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

"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," Byrd said.

The new commentary comes five months after Byrd issued another strongly worded statement that urged the coal industry to "embrace the future," by accepting the need for action to stem global warming and not demonizing citizens who want to curb mountaintop removal mining.

In the new commentary, Byrd argued that coal is "our birthright" as West Virginians and noted the many existing programs that try to share the wealth created by the industry.

"Indeed, the coal severance tax codifies the philosophy that coal belongs to all West Virginians, and that they deserve meaningful compensation through its extraction," Byrd said. "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."

But Byrd said that the coal industry "must respect the miner and his family."

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

And, Byrd said that the coal industry "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," Byrd said.

"The sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected," he added.

"The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities," Byrd said.

Byrd said, "we have coal companies in West Virginia that go out of their way to operate safely and with minimal impact on our environment. Those companies should be commended and rewarded."

But, he added, "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."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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