An article yesterday described the efforts of lawyer-lobbyist Peter Kirby in pushing for coal slurry pipeline legislation. He is not the Peter C. Kirby who works as a lawyer-lobbyist for the Wilderness Society.

If you have to take on the railroads in Congress, says lobbyist Peter Kirby, there's only one way to go: "Put together a coalition of everybody in the world except the railroads."

This week on Capitol Hill there has been such a coalition, and it has roughed up the railroads' roadbed a little under a track that was smooth for 20 years.

At issue are coal slurry pipelines, a transportation system the coal industry wants to develop so it can break up the railroads' virtual monopoly over the long-distance hauling of coal.

The pipeline idea has been around since the 19th century. Basically, the process would pulverize coal at the mine mouth into a fine powder, mix it half-and-half with water and ship the resulting concoction--called slurry--to market through pipes. Proponents say it would cut the cost of shipping coal by up to a third.

The problem lies in the law; to build a pipeline you have to have rights-of-way across railroads. The railroads have been unenthusiastic about granting these. The pipeline companies have thus gone to Congress for right of eminent domain, the power to condemn land that was granted to spur construction of the natural gas pipelines that now crisscross the nation.

President Kennedy first proposed eminent domain legislation for slurry 20 years ago. Big Rail, with management covering the Republicans and unions working the Democrats, has been pigeonholing slurry bills in Congress ever since.

"All we're trying to do is maintain the status quo," says Daniel Lang, a vice president of the Association of American Railroads. "They're the ones trying to pass special interest legislation."

When lobbying on Capitol Hill, offense is always trickier than defense; there are so many possible detours in the legislative process. Now Big Coal may have found an offense that works. It relies on numbers.

The coal companies have fashioned a coalition that includes pipeline companies, coal-burning electric utilities, non-rail labor unions and--in perhaps the ultimate public relations feat for a business-dominated lobbying effort--consumer groups.

"We've always said that coal slurry pipelines are good for the consumer," says Ross Workman, head of the Slurry Transport Association, one of 40 national and regional groups that banded together as the Alliance for Coal and Competitive Transportation. "It's nice to have the consumers saying it."

This week the alliance won a nice round in the House Public Works Committee, which approved eminent domain legislation by a vote of 25 to 21.

It was not easy. As a slugfest between powerful industry groups, this is the kind of fight Congress would rather see go away, especially in an election year. It is also something that's been around so long that "it's like an old dog--no sex appeal," concedes lawyer-lobbyist Kirby, hired by the alliance.

Kirby quarterbacked a team of several dozen coal lobbyists on the Hill, where they spent the week not persuading but handholding. The votes on the committee had long since been lined up. The real enemy was boredom. Could the coal lobbyists keep a quorum sitting in the House Public Works Committee through the tedious stalling tactics of the opposition?

The forces supporting rail understood this, of course, and their main men on the committee, Rep. Bud Shuster (R) and Rep. Robert Edgar (D), both of the rail state of Pennsylvania, produced a dozen different delaying amendments and parliamentary sidesteps over the course of two days.

At one point, when Shuster thought those present at a session had dropped below the magic number of 16, he asked for a quorum call. Edgar, seeing still a member too many in the room, tried to dart out a back door before he was counted as present. He missed by a hair, and the commiteee's business went on. Two other times, the committee did have to adjourn for lack of a quorum.

In the end, it took an unusual committee session at 10 o'clock Wednesday night to get the bill approved.

Kirby says Congress is newly receptive to coal slurry pipelines because of the 1980 passage of the Staggers Rail Act, which partially deregulated rail rates. Since then, the railroads have upped their rates for transporting coal, their most important commodity, by as much as 50 percent. "The feeling is that they got theirs, and now that they've been deregulated it's time to let some other people in on the action," said Kirby.

Lobbying coalitions such as his are now a standard way of doing business in a pluralistic, decentralized Congress, but it is never easy. Hired guns like Kirby spend hours keeping coalition members, often with very different agendas, from each other's throats.

Any coalition, he says, "starts with the idea of pure unadulterated greed, then starts trimming from there." The coal coalition made a key concession earlier this year to western senators when it guaranteed state control over the allocation of scarce water resources to the pipelines.

That has helped move the bill toward markup in the Senate Energy Committee, perhaps next week.

Meantime, the rail lobby is monitoring the bill's progess with concern, but not yet alarm. "This is life or death for us," says Jack Otero, lobbyist for the Brotherhood of Railway Workers. "We may lose some skirmishes, but we're not going to lose the war."