U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV) is an iconic legislator who has served in the Senate since 1959. He is more than a politician from West Virginia; he is the undisputed symbol of power and authority in the state. When Sen. Byrd speaks of or to his beloved state, it's tantamount to speaking for all West Virginians. This makes his recent statements on the coal industry all the more significant.
In a commentary published yesterday, Sen. Byrd called for a reconsideration of West Virginia's relationship with coal mining in the wake of the recent mining tragedy that took the lives of 29 miners at a Massey mine in West Virginia.
"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 writes. He goes on to acknowledge that while "[c]oal brings much needed jobs and revenue to our economy...the industry has a larger footprint, including inherent responsibilities that must be acknowledged by the industry."
Among those responsibilities, Byrd says, are respect for the miners and their families who bear the burden and risk of the dangerous task of producing the coal on which much of the nation relies for power. He also decries the "monolithic power" of the coal industry, acknowledging that letting mining companies dominate politics is detrimental to local communities.
Sen. Byrd, echoing his criticism a few months ago of mountaintop removal, slams this rapacious mining method which has leveled much of Appalachia, polluted its landscape, and plundered its rich natural resources.
"The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land," he writes. "If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated."
This is his most powerful condemnation of what is a rogue mining practice that has cost mining jobs, contaminated communities and threatens to crush the heart of Appalachia. As Sen. Byrd wisely points out: "The old chestnut that 'coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource' deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such."
For this reason -- along with so many others -- mountaintop removal coal mining must be stopped.
(Photo by J. Henry Fair)