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Correction to This Article
The article incorrectly said that Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 1972. He ran unsuccessfully for West Virginia governor.
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Mine blast means new realities for West Virginia Democrats in Congress

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has become a critic of the coal industry after being its champion for many years.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) has become a critic of the coal industry after being its champion for many years. (Win Mcnamee/getty Images)
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In an interview Sunday, Rahall said he is concerned about the "pattern of violations" at Massey mines, both before and after the April 5 blast. He also said that, in conversations with Massey miners at the funerals of their comrades, he found that many employees were reluctant to speak about company safety violations.

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"They want protection for their jobs," Rahall said. "The other camp are those who are no longer working [for Massey], and they are noticeably upset about what has been allowed to go on for so long."

The backgrounds of these politicians vary widely. Rahall is the grandson of a Lebanese immigrant. Rockefeller is the great-grandson of an oil tycoon. Byrd, at 92, is a great-grandfather himself. But all represent a place where coal is politics, the dominant source of money and controversy.

The industry represents about 6 percent of West Virginia's gross domestic product, less than the percentage for retail and manufacturing. But "its political mind share is more. It's like 60 percent," said Carter Eskew, a co-founder of the Washington-based Glover Park Group, a consulting firm.

In the early 20th Century, coal politics was so charged that mine operators and unions traded gunfire. By the early 21st, things had cooled down. Companies got rich, and unions -- which still fought them on miner-safety issues -- got weaker. On environmental issues, the coal industry and coal miners seemed largely to agree: They wanted to mine as much as possible, without cumbersome rules.

Then came the Obama administration. It has pushed the two pillars of West Virginia political life -- the Democratic Party and the coal vote -- painfully far apart.

The White House supported legislation to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, which passed the House last summer. Many feared it would douse the demand for coal, and the proposal is so unpopular that Rahall has been blasted over the bill despite having voted against it.

"People around here said he voted against it after [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi said he could vote against it," said Ron Stollings (D), a West Virginia state senator. Rockefeller has vocally opposed a climate bill. Last month, he said that "nothing on the table has my support."

Another problem: The Environmental Protection Agency has cracked down on mountaintop-removal mining, an only-in-Appalachia practice in which peaks are blasted off to reach the coal seams underneath. Coal companies say the rules could seriously constrain operations.

In the past, the coal companies counted on Byrd's support. In 2001, he reacted to a court decision that curbed mountaintop-removal mining by trying to overturn it with legislation. He cheered when a higher court tossed out the ruling.

This time, Byrd surprised the state political establishment by taking on coal. He released an opinion article titled "Coal Must Embrace the Future." He described a "diminished constituency in Washington" for mountaintop removal and urged coal companies to find another way.

Even the coal industry conceded that there was now a "minor gap" between their positions and his.


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