Virginia's coal mine operators, alarmed over the possibilities of a higher coal mining tax, strict strip mine regulations and an end to the ban on compulsory union membership, are dishing out unprecedented sums of money to candidates for governor and other statewide offices this year.
Campaign managers and fund raisers, party officials and coal field sources in recent days have said that at least $200,000 already has been donated a month before the June 14 Democratic primary.
With Republican candidates just beginning to solicit heavily from coal field donors, some of these sources expect the industry contribution total to exceed $400,000 by the Nov. 8 election. That amount almost certainly would be the largest contribution from a single special interest - industry or labor - in Virginia political history.
As the money flows, it is clear that it is going to candidates who are willing to champion most if not all the causes of the coal industry givers.
Former Attorney General Andrew P. Miller, a candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor and so far the biggest beneficiary of coal contributions, has opposed proposals for a state tax on coal sales, lobbied by letter against proposed federal regulations by strip mining and stoutly defended Virginia's right-to-work law banning compulsory union membership.
His primary opponent, former Lt. Gov. Henry E. Howell, personally appeared with coal operators before a congressional committee and Carter administration energy chief James Schlesinger to oppose the federal strip mining bill.
He also opposed a state coal tax when it was proposed in 1976 by Republican Gov. Mills E. Godwin. Howell's strong union support makes him suspect among coal operators on the right-to-work issue, but Howell dismisses repeal of the compulsory union ban as an impossibility in the current Virginia political climate.
Lt. Gov. John N. Dalton, who is unopposed for the GOP nomination for governor, supported Godwin's coal tax proposal, but has changed his mind. Asked how Dalton could expect coal field support in view of his 1976 stand on the tax, campaign manager William A. Royall Jr. said after an apparently successful fund-raising swing through the coal counties of Southwest Virginia:
"John has seen the light on the coal tax."
The defeated coal tax would have added a 3 per cent state levy on the value of newly mined coal to the 1 per cent local levy that counties already can impose.
Dalton is outspoken in his support of Virginia's right-to-work law and also opposes the proposed federal strip-mining bill that would require operators to restore mountain slopes to their original contours after mining.
Strip mining is now regulated by state laws that, in Virginia, require operators to post bonds to insure that they will landscape stripped slopes in compliance with state standards. Compliance is monitored by state inspectors wht are paid a $12-an-acre fee from a fund drawn from coal operators.
The outpouring of coal money has been accompanied by some controversial incidents involving both contributors and candidates.
James McGlothlin, president of United Coal Co. of Grundy, Va., and one of Miller's biggest supporters, recently offered his miners a half day off if they vote on June 14 and promised to pay $10 to each miner who sees that his wife also votes.
McGlothlin said in an interview that his offer of time off and pay for votes by employees and their wives is not tied to support of any candidate.
McGlothlin himself has been conspicuous in his support of Miller. He said he and his partners in United Coal and the company itself have donated about $30,000 to the Miller campaign so far.
"Both Miller and Howell are friends of the coal industry," McGlothlin said, "but for me Mr. Howell is just a little a radical."
McGlothlin said either Democratic candidate can expect support against Dalton because of Dalton's former coal tax stand. "People in the coal industry are going to jump on Dalton with both feet," he said. "We will contribute all we can to beat him."
Both Miller and Howell have upset a Virginia reclamation organization and coal mining union members by their close association with operators and advocacy of their positions.
Frank Kilgore of St. Paul, Va. codirector of Virginia Citizens for better Reclamation, said Howell and his staff tried last January to persuade him not to portray Virginia reclamation regulations in an unfavorable light when he testified on the federal strip mining bill before the House Interior Committee.
"Mr. Howell came up to me before the hearing and tried to find out what I was going to say," Kilgore said. "He said, 'You know they don't dump spoil over the side (of the mountains) any more.' I told him that they were dumping spoil when I left the coal fields that morning.
"When I told him I was going to show slides that showed spoil dumping at a site that state officials said was their best example of reclamation, Mr. Howell said. 'Do you have to show that?'"
Kilgore said Howell asked him to say that Virginia does not need federal strip mining regulation but he declined to do so.
Miller wrote a letter to Rep. Morris K. Udall (D-Arizona), chairman of the House Interior Committee, urging delay of any federal legislation until Virginia had a chance to expand its inspection program through a proposed tripling of the inspection fee to $36 an acre.
Kilgore said that Miller, after attending a breakfast earlier this year given by coal operators to discuss ways to beat the state bill that would increase inspection fees, urged the Virginia House Mining and Mineral Resources Committee to study reclamation issues: The study was approved and the fee increases defeated.
Kilgore said he interpreted this as an effort by Miller to delay state action on the fees, but Miller denies this. Walter A. Marston, Miller's campaign manager, said his candidate urged increase of the fees, but recommended a separate study to develop state regulations that would exempt Virginia from a federal takeover of its reclamation program.
The close association of Miller and Howell with the strip miners has upset some members of the United Mine Workers of America in Virginia. Donald Mahone, chairman of the UMW Virginia Committee on Political Action before it was disbanded early this year, said in an interview:
"I'm not very happy about the support these candidates are giving surface mine operators who are mostly nonunion."
The exact total contributed by operators will not be known for months. Howell filed a contribution disclosure on Thursday that showed coal gifts of more than $40,000. He also has received a $50,000 loan from former coal operator Charles Horne.
Miller refused to discuss the size of any contributions to him before the legal deadline for his first disclosure on Monday. Marston, however, described Miller fund raising in the coal fields as "very successful."
Dalton does not have to disclose donations to his campaign next October because there is no Republican primary. He said last week, however, "I will have just as much support from the coal counties as Andrew Miller."
The size of the coal contributions appear even larger when placed in the perspective of the industry's location in only three lightly populated counties (Wise, Dickenson and Buchanan) in extreme Southwest Virginia. Almost all donations are coming from independent surface miners rather than the heavily capitalized deep mines usually owned by larger corporations.