By David A. Fahrenthold, Frank Ahrens and Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 19, 2010; A01
In southern West Virginia, it used to look as if three Democrats, who have served in Washington for a combined 115 years, had figured out the delicate, occasionally violent politics of Appalachian coal.
It used to.
Now, the underground explosion that killed 29 miners in Montcoal, W.Va., has only worsened the uncomfortable spotlight on the three: Rep. Nick J. Rahall II, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
They were already being pulled in opposite directions by a Democratic White House and home-state interests, which had criticized administration policies on climate change and "mountaintop removal" mining. Now they are in the middle of a debate about whether the federal government let coal companies skirt safety rules.
The reactions have been as different as the men. Byrd, in Congress since 1953 and essentially untouchable, has become an unlikely critic of the industry he championed for decades. Rockefeller, first elected in 1984, has learned hard lessons about challenging coal. He has asked for patience during an investigation.
Rahall, elected in 1976, is facing a possible reelection fight against a close industry ally. His test in the next year will be whether the region's old political dance -- running for coal, but also against its worst attributes -- can work when the issue is newly divisive in West Virginia and Washington.
"Politicians are running this tightrope, where they want to seem like they're being responsive to issues with coal, like mountaintop removal" and mine safety, said John Poffenbarger, a political science professor at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va. "But at the same time, the state's dependent on it."
The blast at the Upper Big Branch mine on April 5 was the worst U.S. coal-mining accident since 1970. Investigators still are examining the mine's record of ventilation problems, which could have allowed an explosive methane gas or coal-dust buildup.
All three of these coalfield icons have since expressed grief and outrage. But they have differed in their approach to laying blame.
Byrd issued a statement noting that the mine, owned by Richmond-based Massey Energy, had been cited repeatedly by regulators for "significant and substantial" safety violations.
"The ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of the miners falls to the mine operator," Byrd's statement said. "No captain of industry . . . is beyond the reach of the law."
Rockefeller issued a statement that, while criticizing government oversight, does not mention the company by name.
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.
"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.
Rockefeller had a different reaction, rooted in his own political history. In his first Senate race, in 1972, he vowed to abolish surface coal mines such as these "completely and forever." He lost.
After changing that stance, he started winning, becoming first governor, then senator. Since then, the percent of West Virginia coal miners working on surface mines has increased from 1 to about 50 percent. Rockefeller has received $278,300 in industry donations since 1989, according to OpenSecrets.org.
This year, Rockefeller defended "mountaintop" mining, even praising it for creating new flat land for development. Rahall, chairman of the powerful House Natural Resources Committee, has done enough to make both sides mad.
Rahall pushed the White House to allow some of these mines, but the coal companies have blamed him for not reining in the EPA. Their arguments have been echoed by Rahall's best-known challenger, former West Virginia chief justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard. Maynard, a recent Republican convert, was voted off the court after photographs surfaced of him vacationing on the French Riviera with Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, despite handling Massey cases.
"West Virginia is today threatened as it has never been in our lifetimes . . . and part of the reason is that leaders in Washington, D.C., have simply declared war on the coal industry," Maynard told a radio interviewer in February. He was asked whether Rahall was part of that war. "It's not just enough to cast a vote. . . . We simply have got to stop this war on coal," he said.
Environmental groups say Rahall has aided the environment in other parts of the country while supporting a destructive practice in his state, starting with an insert in a 1977 law that helped make mountaintop mining more common. "A lot of environmentalists are going to vote for Spike Maynard: it's incredibly odd," said Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy & the Environment. "Nobody has any illusions that Spike is going to help the environment, but the problem with Rahall is that he has a lot of power."
Political observers said Rahall's chances are still good: he has $1.3 million on hand and the endorsement of the United Mine Workers of America.
"I'm not worried," Rahall said, when asked about his political prospects. "When you look at my entire career in Congress, I will rate at the top as far as protection of our coal miners and protection of our coal industry, and I really believe you can do both."
The Upper Big Branch disaster could also weaken Maynard's candidacy. Voters might see him not as a coal champion but as the pawn of a modern-day coal baron. He did not respond to interview requests, although a few days after the blast, the Associated Press quoted him as saying: "This is no time for politics. Pray for our miners and their families."