Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.)

Cross-posted from the Wonk Room.

The West Virginia coal industry has become a virulent opponent of President Barack Obama’s reform agenda, and the state’s political leaders have cheered it on. In June, West Virginia declared coal the state rock. In September, the coal industry sponsored a rock concert and rally to demonize “environmental extremists.” In October, coal companies organized mobs to attack the Environmental Protection Agency’s halting steps to enforce Clean Water Act limits on mountaintop removal mining. In November, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce told Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) to hold health care reform hostage until climate legislation is killed.

Today, Sen. Byrd had enough. In a stunning rebuke, Byrd told his state to admit that change is coming, and that the coal industry has to clean up its act:

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On coal jobs and mountaintop removal permits: “Let’s speak the truth. The most important factor in maintaining coal-related jobs is demand for coal. Scapegoating and stoking fear among workers over the permitting process is counter-productive.”

On mountaintop removal and coal mobs: “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. West Virginians may demonstrate anger toward the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with EPA and our adversaries in the Congress.”

On representing West Virginia: “We have our work cut out for us in finding a prudent and profitable middle ground — but we will not reach it by using fear mongering, grandstanding and outrage as a strategy. As your United States Senator, I must represent the opinions and the best interests of the entire Mountain State, not just those of coal operators and southern coalfield residents who may be strident supporters of mountaintop removal mining.”

On holding health care hostage for the coal industry: “Some have even suggested that coal state representatives in Washington should block any advancement of national health care reform legislation until the coal industry’s demands are met by the EPA. I believe that the notion of holding the health care of over 300 million Americans hostage in exchange for a handful of coal permits is beyond foolish; it is morally indefensible.”

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Byrd concludes that mindless resistance to change is probably not a wise choice:

Change has been a constant throughout the history of our coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear. The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose.

Byrd has long been one of the coal industry’s most vociferous defenders in the U.S. Senate. But the reality is that the industry has destroyed West Virginia jobs through mechanization, has destroyed West Virginia health through pollution, and destroyed West Virginia’s natural beauty through wanton mountaintop removal. It is also a reality that West Virginia coal is destroying our climate. Proving again that he is a true leader, Sen. Byrd has stood up and recognized reality. Hopefully, West Virginians will choose Byrd’s prescription for change, and not the path of inaction offered by the state’s corrupt coal oligarchs.

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