This post was co-written by Mary Anne Hitt of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, who is also a native West Virginian.

On September 21, 2006, grandfather and former coal miner Ed Wiley took the final steps of a 455-mile walk that began in the coalfields of West Virginia and ended in Washington, DC, at the office of Senator Robert Byrd.

Ed had made his two-month, one-man pilgrimage to ask Senator Byrd to build a new school for the students of Marsh Fork Elementary, which is located immediately beneath an earthen dam holding back 2.8 billion gallons of coal sludge, next to a dust-spewing coal processing plant, and adjacent to a massive mountaintop removal mining operation.

Senator Byrd, one of the most powerful men in America, personally received Ed at his office. They prayed together, and tears were shed by all. Senator Byrd told Ed that he would do what he could to help, though it meant challenging Massey Energy, the now-notorious coal company that ran the coal operation and insisted the school was perfectly safe.

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In 2009, Byrd announced his support for moving the school. When Massey initially balked at contributing money for a new school, Byrd blasted the company, stating “This is about companies that blatantly disregard human life and safety because of greed.” He continued,

Such arrogance suggests a blatant disregard for the impact of [Massey’s] mining practices on our communities, residents and particularly our children. These are children’s lives we are talking about.

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After Senator Byrd made his statement, most WV leaders quickly followed by announcing their support for a new school. Just a few days ago, the last of the funding was finally secured to build a new school in a safe location for the students of Marsh Fork.

While many may remember Senator Byrd as a supporter of coal at any cost, that view became more nuanced in recent years. As we remember the legacy of Senator Robert Byrd this week, we wanted to note his amazing change of opinion on the issue of burning coal for power.

Senator Byrd was one of the coal industry’s most strident defenders for most of his long tenure in the Senate, but during his final years he tempered that support and signaled that West Virginia must begin to look at a future beyond coal.

Senator Byrd surprised many – including those of us here at the Sierra Club – with his December 2009 commentary entitled “Coal Must Embrace the Future.” While he did continue to tout the importance of coal, he also discussed how the coal industry must wake up and face the new reality facing West Virginia: the majority of Americans and Members of Congress oppose mountaintop removal mining, and the transition to clean energy is not something this coal mining state can afford to ignore. He wrote:

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.

Senator Byrd also defended action on global warming – from this quote in his December 2009 piece

To be part of any solution, one must first acknowledge a problem. To deny the mounting science of climate change is to stick our heads in the sand and say “deal me out.” West Virginia would be much smarter to stay at the table.

Byrd also refused to support Senate efforts to block the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from addressing global warming. In commenting on one such proposal by Senator Lisa Murkowski to overturn EPA’s finding that global warming pollution endangers public health and welfare, Byrd wrote:

The Murkowski “Disapproval Resolution” overturns the “endangerment finding.” This in essence is like voting to assert that there is no climate change or global warming going on, and to dismiss scientific facts that already exist.

While Senator Byrd continued to support coal until the end, he also recognized that change was inevitable, and that fear-mongering and reactionary politics would only hurt the people of West Virginia.

Following his 2006 meeting with Ed Wiley, Senator Byrd issued this statement:

I admire the determination and dedication that Ed and Debbie Wiley have shown. The Bible teaches that if we have faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains. I believe that the Wileys have that faith.

Since Ed Wiley’s walk, countless coalfield residents have traveled to Washington to meet with Senator Byrd, his staff, and other decision makers. As a result, proposals to end mountaintop removal are gaining ground in Congress and in the White House.

As we mourn the passing of Senator Byrd, let us remember that heroic acts by ordinary people can move those at the heights of power, and let us continue to demand decision makers work to move us beyond coal and toward a clean energy future.