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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.