Joe Lovett, director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, said Manchin should not demand a "litmus test" for loyalty to the coal industry for any temporary replacements for Byrd.
"To his credit, Senator Byrd evolved on many issues, and he was a person who thought about things for himself and made decisions about what he thought was best for the people of the country and our state, and he came to see things differently regarding the coal industry and its relationship to the state," Lovett said.
As with mountaintop removal, Byrd previously took a hard-line stance on global warming, co-authoring a 1997 Senate resolution that essentially blocked U.S. ratification of the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
But one of Byrd's last Senate roll-call votes was against a resolution that would have overturned a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding that greenhouse gas emissions threaten public health and welfare.
"The resolution is an open-ended denunciation of many leading scientific studies and regulatory initiatives," Byrd said. "As I have said before, to deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say, 'deal me out' of the future."
Byrd helped create the federal government's program to research "clean coal," technologies and battled during the last major rewrite of the Clean Air Act in 1990 to provide federal benefits for coal miners displaced by tougher acid rain rules.
Over the years, and increasingly since the Sago Mine Disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire in 2006, Byrd has pushed for tougher federal enforcement of mine safety laws and for more efforts to prevent black lung and to compensate miners or their widows for the deadly disease's toll.
"Despite failing health, Senator Byrd fought to the very end to improve miners' lives," said United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts. "The United Mine Workers and all coal-mining families and communities have lost their best friend."
Byrd's statements in the last year have been tougher on the coal industry. But he has never, as some environmental activists have hoped and even declared, actually come out against mountaintop removal or backed anything remotely approaching a near-term ban on coal-fired power.
Byrd has tried to encourage West Virginians to accept the notion that coal isn't going to be around forever, and that forces beyond tougher environmental rules -- increased competition with other coal-producing states and the depletion of much of Appalachia's best reserves -- need to be honestly considered in coming up with future economic development plans.
"The old chestnut that 'coal is West Virginia's greatest natural resource' deserves revision," Byrd said last month. "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 kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.