A powerful coal-country Democrat is taking credit this week for single-handedly blocking legislation to rein in mountaintop removal coal mining — a process popular with Appalachian coal companies but one that's also linked to cancer and other health threats.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) said the bill — which would prohibit companies from burying Appalachian streams under mountains of mining waste — would have passed long ago except that his seniority on several key committees has allowed him to block it.
The 17-term lawmaker is warning voters that the bill is sure to pass if he's defeated in November.
"That bill is not going anywhere because it has two avenues to get through the House of Representatives," Rahall, who heads the Natural Resources panel, told The Register Herald of Beckley, W.Va. "One is to amend the federal surface mining law … That bill has to go through my committee. I chair that committee. It ain’t going to happen.
"The other avenue is to amend the Clean Water Act. That bill has to go through the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. I’m vice chairman. While the chairman [Rep. James Oberstar (D-Minn.)] is for the bill, he’s not going to bring it up as a favor to me — so it ain’t going to come up."
A longtime defender of the coal industry, Rahall has nonetheless come under attack in recent months from his challenger, Republican Spike Maynard, who's tried to link Rahall to Democratic leaders critical of coal's impact on the environment and human health. The debate has devolved into a dispute over which candidate is more supportive of the industry — with both claiming victory.
This week, Rahall warned that, if he's ousted in next month's midterm elections, the anti-mountaintop removal bill will pass the House with 400 votes behind it.
"To other members of the Congress across the country, Republicans included, if the vote were allowed to get to the House — which it’s not because of me — [it] would be a freebie for them to throw to environmentalists," he said. "That’s why it would pass overwhelmingly."
The proposal, sponsored by Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) and Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), has 171 co-sponsors.