Senator Robert Byrd posted a homage to John Denver and the mountains of West Virginia on his website.
This year, 2010, is the fortieth anniversary of the premier of John Denver's musical tribute to West Virginia as "almost heaven."
When I think of Denver's classic song, "Take Me Home, Country Roads," (which was co-written with Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert) I think about the things that make West Virginia so unique. First, of course, is the kind and generous nature of the people of our beloved state. Next, I picture the beauty and serenity of our mountains. They seem sacred, and, in fact, mountains are a frequent location for events in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments.
(Byrd's statement was his weekly address and also can be found here.)
References to the beauty, serenity, and sacredness of the West Virginia mountains seem sadly ironic. One might ask why these treasured places are being turned into almost hell.
I cannot argue with the affection Byrd expresses for the mountains and people of West Virginia. I simply cannot reconcile the sentiment with his reluctance to stop the destruction of those mountains and the lives of West Virginians.
Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue Ridge mountains, Shenandoah River.
Life is old there, older than the trees,
Younger than the mountains,
growing like a breeze.
Last year, Byrd sent his staffers on a fact-finding mission to tour mountaintop removal mine sites from the air and on the ground. Fact-finding after mountaintop removal mining has already destroyed over 500 irreplaceable mountains seems a bit late.
Over the past 30 years (all of which during Byrd's tenure in the Senate), mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia has destroyed more than a million acres of forest and dumped debris and toxic waste in more than 1000 miles of streams. The eventual goal is to destroy approximately 12 million acres encompassing most of eastern Kentucky, southern West Virginia, western Virginia, and scattered areas of eastern Tennessee. You can see the outlines of the growing scourge (surface coal seam) on this map from 5 years ago.
I marvel at the lack of conscience of the people that run the coal companies and the politicians that protect them. The coal industry has long intimidated miners, even murdered union organizers, exploited communities, and is now destroying millions of acres in Appalachia. The miners are the only true heros in this tragedy, but the wealth generated by coal never trickles down to them and their families.
All my mem'ries gather 'round her,
Miner's lady, stranger to blue waters.
Dark and dusty painted on the sky,
Misty taste of moonshine,
teardrops in my eye.
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Change of heart?
Byrd for his part is having some change of heart about mountaintop removal plundering.
It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.
It is funny how a process that is "not a widespread method of mining" has already laid waste to over a million acres across four states. He means only that it is not used outside of Appalachia, although somewhat less destructive forms of surface mining are used elsewhere.
Byrd is well aware of the growing evidence of the environmental and health hazards posed by mountaintop removal mining. Byrd's concerns about mountaintop removal mining are pragmatic rather than driven by a deep and abiding affection for the mountains and the people who live there. He wants to protect the interests of the coal industry and is basically suggesting that mountaintop removal mining can be used as a bargaining chip.
Most people understand that America cannot meet its current energy needs without coal, but there is strong bi-partisan opposition in Congress to the mountaintop removal method of mining it. We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground – but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy.
And protecting the profitability of some of the most profitable companies over the past century is just part of his job as Senator.
I have spent the past six months working with a group of coal state Democrats in the Senate, led by West Virginia native Senator Tom Carper (D-Del.), drafting provisions to assist the coal industry in more easily transitioning to a lower-carbon economy. These include increasing funding for clean coal projects and easing emission standards and timelines, setting aside billions of dollars for coal plants that install new technology and continue using coal.
Byrd is concerned about ability of the coal industry to transition to a decarbonized economy, but does not extend the same concern to the dwindling employment prospects for people living in coal fields. Mining jobs in the state are rapidly disappearing and the highly mechanized operations used in mountaintop removal mining employ few and pay considerably less than underground mining jobs. Living wage jobs in the West Virginia of the future will not be coming from the coal industry. Byrd is aware of the issue.
In 1979, there were 62,500 coal miners in the Mountain State. Today there are about 22,000. In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment.
Whenever there is talk of a moratorium on mountaintop removal mining, the coal industry screams "jobs will be lost" but they mean "profits will be lost." Even Byrd recognizes the cynical "fear-mongering" and "grandstanding" of the coal industry. The sad truth is that state and local budgets are heavily dependent on tax revenues from the coal industry. This is why Governor Manchin and the West Virginia congressional delegation protect mountaintop removal at all costs even though the short-term benefits will come at an overwhelming price for future generations. Future generations will be stuck cleaning up the destruction and toxic effects of mountaintop removal mining long after the tax revenues from coal companies have dried up. The interests of the people of West Virginia will be best served by help to build a sustainable economic and environmental future rather than continued reliance on coal and especially mountaintop removal mining extraction methods.
Byrd closes his March 3rd address with the following.
Contemplating the use of mountains and hillsides as symbols in Holy Scripture, underscores what a special gift our mountains are for the people of West Virginia. Majestic, inspiring, and, at times, intimidating, our mountains remind us of the glory of the view after the challenge of the climb. Perhaps that is why West Virginians retain a stalwart and independent character, always inspired by possibilities and undaunted by difficulties.
This statement cannot be reconciled with the use of the mountains, hillsides, and streams as symbols of the malignant avarice of the coal industry. Byrd either really does not believe that the mountains are a special, even sacred, gift to the people of West Virginia or knows damn well that gift is being squandered to feed the bottom line of the coal industry. As noted in an excellent article in The New Republic, 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."
Mountaintop removal mining yields very high profit margins because the mechanized operations employ only a handful of people and lax regulations limit liability and reclamation costs. The coal industry is going to fight for every dollar of profit and will spend millions to wage a public relations battle to maintain the right to rape West Virginia. Here is an example of their attack and deceive machinery in action. A study published in 2009 found that health outcomes, including life expectancy, were substantially lower in coal mining regions of Appalachia with health-related costs an average of six times greater than economic benefits of coal to municipal revenue streams. The coal industry representatives immediately attacked the research and researchers. The coal industry then paid economists at West Virginia University and Marshall University to paint a glowing picture of the economic benefits of coal while ignoring any costs to the community.
Country roads, take me home,
To the place I do belong
West Virginia, mountain mama,
Take me home, country roads
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The usual suspects and sockpuppets
The coal industry has gotten used to running the show in Appalachia with virtually no environmental regulation of mountaintop removal mining under Bush.
George W. Bush was one of the best friends the coal industry ever had. Over the past eight years, Bush administration officials did nearly everything they could to clear the way for more mountaintop removal. They fought the court challenges that community groups filed against mining projects, watered down environmental regulations, and did little as scientific evidence grew showing the severe ecological damage of mountaintop projects.
The mere talk of tighter regulations sends coal industry scum like Don Blankenship into overdrive.
The mission statement for coal is prosperity for this country. This industry is what made this country great and if we forget that, we’re going to have to learn to speak Chinese.
The mission of the coal industry is to make America rich? Is that why the poverty levels are so high in the coal fields? ... Let me destroy Appalachia or the Chinese will take over...
And whenever dirtbags gather, Sean Hannity will be there.
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.
The CEO of the largest coal company along with the Chamber of Commerce is claiming that corporate America is destroying jobs. That has to be one of the few times Blankenship has ever told the truth. And way to build up your populist credibility by inviting a millionaire Fox News commentator and millionaire third-rate musician with guns to rile up the rabble, all while dancing on the remnants of a destroyed mountain.
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A round of applause for Robert Byrd
I would be remiss in not giving Senator Byrd a round of applause for his fighting spirit. In response to a terrible editorial on healthcare reform in the Charleston Daily Mail, Byrd fired back in a letter to the editor that pointed out the deceptions and contained this gem.
With all due respect, the Daily Mail's hyperbole about "imposing government control," acts of "disrespect to the American people" and "corruption" of Senate procedures resembles more the barkings from the nether regions of Glennbeckistan than the "sober and second thought" of one of West Virginia's oldest and most respected daily newspapers.
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WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
The Appalachia Restoration Act (S. 696) is a bill in the U.S. Senate which will sharply reduce mountaintop removal coal mining and protect clean drinking water for many of our nation's cities. It will protect the quality of life for Appalachian coalfield residents who face frequent catastrophic flooding and pollution or loss of drinking water as a result of mountaintop removal coal mining.
Here is another reason why your support for the Appalachia Restoration Act is critical. The Obama administration is delaying action on tighter restrictions on mountaintop removal mining.
The Obama administration has delayed action on a set of broad-ranging and specific measures to reduce the environmental impacts of mountaintop removal, after details of the plan were leaked to coal-state mining regulators.
Contact your Senators: National Resource Defense Council contact form