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Old Senator, New Tricks

What’s behind Robert Byrd’s surprising smackdown of Big Coal?

As a rule, politicians in West Virginia don't care for environmentalists. This is, after all, a state that supplies 50 percent of U.S. coal exports, a state where the mining industry is responsible for roughly 30,000 jobs—a state that essentially depends on pollution for its survival. And West Virginia's most prominent coal champion has long been Robert Byrd, who once slammed green critics of mining as "head-in-the-cloud individuals" out to destroy jobs and impoverish the region. In 2008, Byrd was the lone Senate Democrat to vote against even starting debate on a bill to curb carbon-dioxide emissions.

So just about everyone was shocked when, last month, Byrd did an about-face and wrote an op-ed that criticized modern-day mining practices and accused the coal industry of "having its head in the sand" on climate change. Local pols were sure there must have been some mistake. The state's governor, Joe Manchin, chalked the whole thing up to a "misunderstanding." The local Chamber of Commerce president generously offered to "forgive" Byrd if he'd walk back his comments.

But it wasn't a misunderstanding, and Byrd isn't walking anything back. After 50 years in the Senate, the 92-year-old statesman seems to be revising his views on both coal and global warming. And not because he's suddenly channeling his inner tree-hugger. Rather, Byrd is finding it increasingly difficult to argue that the interests of coal companies and the interests of his state are one and the same.

Last May, a series of floods ripped through the southern coalfield counties of West Virginia, damaging some 3,000 buildings and requiring more than $60 million in government assistance. Politicians and industry reps were quick to call the disaster an act of God, but Byrd wasn’t convinced. For the past few years, environmental groups had been quietly lobbying the senator's office about the destructive effects of mountaintop-removal mining—a widespread process across Appalachia, in which miners use explosives to rip off the tops of hills and mountains in order to get at the coal seams underneath. Not only does this form of mining destroy streams and pollute drinking water in the surrounding areas, but a host of studies have pointed out that the resulting degradation of forests and topsoil has left the region more vulnerable to severe flooding. When local citizens pled their case that month, Byrd surprised many by agreeing to take a look.

Although Byrd himself was still recovering from a staph infection that kept him in the hospital, he sent several members of his staff to visit the affected areas. They toured the countryside, where locals pointed out roads that had been washed out and homes literally swept away. "The vast amount of damage is not something you can see from a TV camera," observed Howard Branham, a resident of Mingo County who volunteered as a tour guide for Byrd's staff. "I think what they saw was the true extent of the damage."

By the fall of 2009, the prospect of greater federal oversight over mountaintop mining made it likely that the industry would have to start at least mitigating the damage from mountaintop mining. But when the EPA announced that it would delay 79 mining permits in the region for further inspection, coal companies decided instead to go on the attack. Don Blankenship, the CEO of the state's biggest coal producer, Massey Energy, teamed up with the state Chamber of Commerce and other trade groups to hold a Labor Day rally. The theme? How "environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs." Blankenship spent more than $1 million on the event, which took place on a flattened mountain and featured conservatives like Sean Hannity and Ted Nugent.

Blankenship's stunt created a backlash from some key quarters of the state. Massey is a notoriously anti-union firm, and the fact that the rally was being held on Labor Day didn't sit well with many in the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA), still a major political force in the state. Many of West Virginia's union members are already uncomfortable with mountaintop-removal mining, which is less labor-intensive than traditional methods and has led to a steep decline in the size of West Virginia's coal workforce—from 62,500 in 1979 to about 22,000 today. "I don't even like to compare what they're doing to what we're doing," says retired miner and UMWA member Terry Steele. Moreover, the event only underscored the fact that Blankenship has long tried to frame coal as a partisan issue. In a state where registered Democrats still outnumber Republicans by a wide margin, he's devoted more than $6 million to helping the GOP take over.

As Massey and other coal companies have become increasingly obstreperous, Byrd has begun to notice. At a public hearing on mountaintop-removal mining last October, members of the front group Friends of Coal packed the meeting and shouted down West Virginians trying to lodge their complaints. (Many of the citizens in attendance were convinced that employers had encouraged or paid their miners to show up and disrupt the proceedings. "I've been in unions, I know how the companies fight, and these guys were being stoked," says retired miner Joe Stanley, who was at the meeting.) A Byrd staff member was in attendance, and it appears that the industry's tactics grated. "I think those meetings did play a role [in Byrd's shift]," says one former mining official and close observer of state politics. "Everybody watched the debate and saw the vile nature of it." And the gap between the coal industry and Byrd only widened in November, when the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce called on the state's representatives in Congress to try to block health care reform until the EPA "backs down on its campaign against coal." In his December statement, Byrd called the demand "foolish" and "morally indefensible."

There's also the climate question. Byrd's not about to become an environmentalist; even in his op-ed, he insisted that coal was here to stay. But he seems to recognize that the realities of global warming will force the country to rethink how it uses coal sooner or later and that the state’s companies aren’t playing a constructive role. (Blankenship, for instance, has criticized coal-heavy utilities in other states, like Duke Energy, for working with Congress on climate issues.) Byrd's longtime mantra, according to political historian Robert Rupp, is that "It's better to be at the table than on the menu." And so he seems willing to spend what's likely his last term in Congress getting West Virginia to realize that, in the end, obstructionism won't serve the state very well.

Jesse Zwick is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.

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