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.

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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Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 19, 2010

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.

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