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."