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