The Virginia House of Delegates, ending a three-year struggle that pitted some of the state's most powerful business interests against each other, today killed a controversial bill needed for construction of a coal slurry pipeline.
The bill would have lifted restrictions against the condemnation of public and private land for the billion-dollar project that would have stretched 400 miles from the state's western coal fields to the port of Hampton Roads.
The state's electric utilities wanted the measure and its railroads, which currently have the coal hauling business to themselves, fought it bitterly.
Several legislators said the surprisingly large number of legislators opposed to the pipeline could spell trouble for another controversial measure that would allow uranium mining in the state.
The bill died on a vote of 62 to 36.
Legislators said extensive vote-trading over that issue helped produced the lopsided vote today against what had been expected to be a close contest.
"It's dead for the next decade," one railroad lawyer exulted as he left the packed House gallery after today's vote.
Both the pipeline and the mining bills have drawn strong environmental opposition.
The House will hold a public hearing on uranium mining Wednesday.
The pipeline bill was vigorously supported by utilities and coal interests who have chafed at the costs of transporting coal by railroad.
The state's major railroads argued the pipeline would cost Virginia jobs and businesses.
"They had the full court press on," said Del. Owen B. Pickett (D-Virginia Beach), sponsor of the pipeline legislation that strained traditional friendships and spurred regional rivalries.
"The five counties in Southwest [where most coal is produced] are expendable as far as most members of this body are concerned," Pickett said.
Pickett said the utility and coal interests were not likely to seek legislation again but may try again in Congress, which also has rejected pipeline legislation.
"We ought to get to the main issue and put this thing to sleep," Del. Richard Cranwell (D-Roanoke County), the leader of the antipipeline forces, said moments before the House rejected the bill.
Cranwell, whose Roanoke Valley area is headquarters to the Norfolk and Western, one of the nation's largest coal-hauling railroad, said the bill lost because of economic and environmental questions as well as opposition from the railroads and questions about giving the pipeline the power to condemn property.
Cranwell said later that "there's not a lot the state can do" about Virginia's sagging coal industry where unemployment remains in double figures.
The House action also was a victory for former Republican governor John N. Dalton of Richmond, a director of CSX Corp., a Richmond-based conglomerate that includes a major railroad. Dalton personally lobbied against the measure last year and again this year.
The loss was a defeat for Virginia Electric Co. and Alexandria attorney William Thomas, one of the state's most influential lobbyists and a confidante of Gov. Charles S. Robb.
Robb, who last year said there were too many environmental questions about the slurry concept, said this year he would sign an environmentally safe bill but played little role in deciding the issue.
Today's debate was marked by emotional appeals -- for free enterprise by those who wanted the pipeline -- and humor.
Cranwell warned at one point that cows would be in danger if a pipeline exploded on farmland.
When a legislator tried to interrupt Cranwell, he refused to yield.
"I'm on a roll," Cranwell said, confident of victory.