Speak Your Piece: My Congressman

My Congressman vowed to block a law that would be good for the state. Is he still an "honest broker"?

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I’m a Democrat. At least that is what I tell people when the question comes up. But West Virginia Congressman Nick Rahall, a Democrat, has gotten on my bad side for a couple of reasons.

This began with an article I read about Rep. Rahall in the Beckley (WV) Register Herald. The article revealed a side of Rahall that was new to me  –  different from the candidate who won my vote the last time he was up for reelection. Rahall told the newspaper he would use his power as a committee chair to stop a bill that would abolish mountaintop removal mining. 

Rahall’s 3rd Congressional District is made up of about 600,000 residents living in beautiful, mountainous, coal-rich southern West Virginia. The district stretches from Huntington on the banks of the Ohio to the Greenbrier Resort in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. My home is in the rural coalmining town of Summersville, Nicholas County, West Virginia.

Rep. Rahall was first elected in 1976.  He is now in his 17th term, and he has an opponent, a Republican who says Democrats are “waging a war on coal.” Rep. Rahall appears to be on a mission to refute that charge.

He is the longest-serving West Virginian in the U.S. House of Representatives.  He serves as the Chairman of the Committee on Natural Resources and Vice Chairman of the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.

Rep. Rahall told the editorial board of the Beckley newspaper that he is a defender of mountaintop removal mining practice. Rep. Rahall acknowledged mountaintop removal mining has attracted growing opposition on Capitol Hill from both sides of the aisle. Some 200 members of the House proposed legislation to abolish the method, but it went to the Roads and Transportation Committee, where Rahall is vice chairman.

“I blocked it,” he told the paper. “I kept it from even having a hearing on it. It would have passed Congress overwhelmingly. It was a freebie. Republicans would have voted to end mountaintop removal.” 

Rep. Rahall’s defense of mountaintop removal would have come across a bit more respectful had he provided encouraging job statistics, something that would offset the devastation caused by mountaintop removal. Or, at least, he could have offered condolences to those of us who love the mountains.

Mark Schmerling/published with permission, Plundering Appalachia (2009) © Earth Aware Editions™
Acid runoff pools below the mine site at Kayford Mountain, about 35 miles southeast of Charleston, West Virginia.

I am not an expert in the area of mining but I do know first hand the effects of mountaintop removal. The tops of mountains are ripped or blown off, making it easier to take out seams of coal. Sludge runs off these mines into the streams below, killing fish and poisoning the water. Flooding increases as the mountains are stripped of their vegetations.

Zela Elementary School near my home depends on bottled drinking water purchased by the board of education because mining in the area ruined the local water supply.  Families are cut off from cemeteries. That happened on Star Mountain in Nicholas County. Graves crack open or cave in from nearby blasting, which happened on the Kayford land.

Families or businesses situated near mountaintop removal sites endure dynamite blasts that break windows or crack the foundations.  In mining communities, an average of 100 wells per year go bad, dried up as a result of reckless mining methods.

Rahall defended mountaintop removal mining, saying that flat land is premium in West Virginia.  But West Virginia is known and loved for its mountains.  Perhaps Rep. Rahall would be happier in one of the Great Plains States such as Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, or even Oklahoma, where, I hear, there is lots of level land.

Rahall told the Beckley paper that there would be no changes in the 1977 federal strip mining act — a law Rahall helped author — that would wipe out mountaintop mining. “Guess where that has to go?” he asked, rhetorically about any change in the federal law. “The Natural Resources Committee. Guess who’s chairman? Me.”

What I want from my elected officials are laws that are best for workers and our environment and long-term solutions to our problems. In 1940, West Virginia employed 130,457 coal miners.  In 2006, there were fewer than 20,000. We still haven’t found the cause for the increasing number of black lung cases among younger miners. Companies still mine coal in ways that hurt people and the land.

HSUS
Rep. Rahall recently received an award from the Humane Society of the United States. Here Rahall (left) is pictured with Michael Markarian, President of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.

I’m not the only one to notice that Rep. Rahall could do more to help this state. Recently, Ken Ward Jr., at Coal Tattoo, wrote about Rep. Rahall and the role he plays in the nation and West Virginia. Ward notes that Rahall has an opponent this year who is making the case that Obama (and Democrats like Rahall) are waging a “war on coal.” 

Ward wrote:

Rahall doesn’t seem willing to step up — as Sen. Robert C. Byrd has done — and provide West Virginians with some honest talk about the tenuous future of the Central Appalachian coal industry. Instead, he’s reduced himself to urging Massey Energy to run its pro-coal ads in Washington, D.C., to help convince lawmakers and other policy leaders there how great the industry is.

It’s not so surprising, given the politics and economics of his district, that Rahall hasn’t come out publicly against mountaintop removal coal mining.

Still, Congressman Rahall is  a smart guy with a smart staff, and he’s in a position — despite his support for coal — to make this industry be a far more responsible corporate neighbor in the region he has represented in Congress for more than three decades….

Sen. Byrd has urged other public officials to be “honest brokers” about the looming issues facing the coal industry, and made it clear that he will represent the interests of all of his constituents, not just the vocal and strident supporters of mountaintop removal.

Environmentalists and coalfield residents have a right to wonder when Nick Rahall is going to start following Sen. Byrd’s advice.

 

 

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