Remembering Senator Robert C. Byrd: Longest Serving US Senator Dies Early Today

posted by Rainforest Action Network

Senator Robert C. Byrd passed away this morning at 3am at age 92. He was the longest serving member of the US Senate and during his tenure occupied such prestigious titles as majority and minority leader and president pro tem.

Sen. Byrd stood strong for the interests of those in the coalfields and was a long time champion for coal miners and the industry. But he also showed us that he was willing to modify his positions as science and his constituents demanded.

In comments earlier today Obama said:

He had the courage to stand firm in his principles, but also the courage to change over time.”

One of the most striking areas that Sen. Byrd had shown this courage was in the last year as he became outspoken on the role of coal in West Virginia’s future as well as on mountaintop removal.

As Ken Ward recounts:

About a year ago, Sen. Byrd sent his staff into the coalfields, on a fact-finding mission, and last December came out with his major statement, urging the coal industry to “Embrace the Future.“  Among his most important points? That change was coming to the West Virginia coalfields, regardless of what happens with cap-and-trade legislation and mountaintop removal restrictions.

And then after the April mine disaster, he once again came out and demanded that the coal industry must respect miners, the land and the people who live in the West Virginia coalfields:

The old chestnut that “coal is West Virginia’s greatest natural resource” deserves revision. I believe that our people are West Virginia’s most valuable resource. We must demand to be treated as such.”

JW at the Appalachian Voices Front Porch Blog has pulled a nice summary of Byrd’s recent statements on mountaintop removal:

“In recent years, West Virginia has seen record high coal production and record low coal employment … The increased use of mountaintop removal mining means that fewer miners are needed to meet company production goals.

It is also a reality that the practice of mountaintop removal mining has a diminishing constituency in Washington. 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. 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.

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.  It is a non-starter, and puts the entire state of West Virginia and the coal industry in a terrible light.

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.”

And a memory I will always hold fondly of Sen. Byrd was recently watching him stand up to the arrogance of Don Blankenship when the Massey CEO was called to testify in a Senate Hearing on the Upper Big Branch mine disaster.

For more on his life and the contributions Senator Byrd made during his tenure check out the NY Times or NPR.