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Over the years, Byrd evolved on coal stance

Click here to see a timeline, videos and more on Robert C. Byrd. 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A decade ago, Sen. Robert C. Byrd took to the floor of the Senate to defend his effort to legislate away a federal court ruling that would limit mountaintop-removal coal mining.

The West Virginia Democrat attacked the Clinton administration -- repeatedly shouting "Fie on the White House" -- and ridiculed environmental activists who opposed blowing up mountains and burying streams to feed the nation's appetite for coal-fired power.

"These head-in-the-cloud individuals peddle dreams of an idyllic life among old-growth trees, but they seem ignorant of the fact that, without the mines, jobs will disappear, tables will go bare, schools will not have the revenue to teach our children, towns will not have the income to provide even basic services," Byrd said in that November 1999 floor speech.

Since then, the fight over mountaintop removal has grown more bitter, even as scientists have grown more certain that the practice is causing widespread damage to the Appalachian environment.

But in the last year, Byrd has become virtually a lone voice among West Virginia political leaders in criticizing the coal industry, both for mountaintop removal and over the refusal to accept the scientific consensus around global warming.

After a highly publicized fact-finding mission by his staff a year ago, Byrd in December delivered a statement that urged the coal industry and its political supporters to "embrace the future," by working toward compromises on both mountaintop-removal restrictions and greenhouse gas limits.

"Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry," Byrd said. "West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it.

"One thing is clear," the senator continued. "The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."

Byrd's statements became even more forceful in the last three months. After the April 5 explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, Byrd said the coal industry needed to begin to respect its miners, the land and those who live in West Virginia's coalfields.

"The sovereignty of West Virginia must also be respected," Byrd said. "The monolithic power of industry should never dominate our politics to the detriment of local communities."

With Byrd's death early Monday morning, that lone voice is gone. Another of the coal industry's major political backers, Gov. Joe Manchin, will appoint at least a temporary successor, and has indicated congressional debates over coal's future are in his mind as he weighs his options.

Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said Byrd was "a great friend" to the industry, but that "concern was mounting" among coal operators about Byrd's positions on strip mining and climate change. Raney said the industry hopes Byrd's seat is ultimately filled by someone "with a deep sensitivity" to coal's needs.

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 kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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