The coal industry is responding with diplomacy to Sen. Robert C. Byrd's attack on mountaintop removal mining.
The National Mining Association said Friday it agrees with most of the West Virginia Democrat's comments, including statements that coal remains an essential energy source. West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney said he hoped Byrd is not turning against the industry.
Highly efficient mountaintop mines are common in parts of Appalachia but they are widely opposed by environmentalists who say they are too damaging to terrain, culture and water quality.
Byrd, a revered figure in West Virginia after spending nearly 57 years in Congress, said in his statement that mountaintop removal mining enjoys little support in Washington. Moreover, he said the industry isn't helping by attacking opponents and sowing fear in the Appalachian coalfields.
"The practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington," Byrd said in the statement, which was released as an opinion piece. "It is not a widespread method of mining, with its use confined to only three states. Most members of Congress, like most Americans, oppose the practice, and we may not yet fully understand the effects of mountaintop removal mining on the health of our citizens."
Sen. Jay Rockefeller echoed Byrd's sentiments Friday.
"There has been some pretty inflammatory statements from the coal industry, not all of it, just a few people, that is scaring the heck out of people in southern West Virginia," Rockefeller said during a conference call to discuss U.S. Department of Energy funding for clean coal projects in West Virginia, Texas and Alabama. Such projects will keep coal vital, he said, not fear mongering. "This is really all about opportunity for West Virginia."
The coal industry, however, fears that opportunity is being lost through a series of actions taken by the Obama administration. Since January, the new administration has begun scrutinizing clean water permits sought for coal mines, among other things.
"We absolutely remain focused on making sure that our people continue to work and certainly welcome the senator's involvement," Raney said. "Clearly the coal will come from someplace. We want our West Virginia to be mining coal. It's just absolutely critical."