Republican lawmakers poised to join Democrat on mine issue

Mountaintop mining and filling streams with waste defended

November 10, 1999|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- In an overture with potentially far-reaching implications, Republican lawmakers sought yesterday to join Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, in trying to preserve the rights of mining companies to dump waste that environmentalists say causes pollution.

Under a deal being discussed last night, the Republicans would back Byrd in his effort to overturn a federal judge's ruling that would curb the practice of mining coal from mountaintops and then dumping rock waste into streams and valleys in West Virginia.

In return, the Republican lawmakers would win similar protections for mountaintop mining throughout Appalachia, particularly Kentucky and Pennsylvania.

In addition, Western state Republicans would gain Byrd's support for a provision to allow mining companies to continue to dump their mining waste on federal land.

The Clinton administration is opposed to both provisions. President Clinton has threatened to veto the measure applying to Western mining, saying it poses a threat to the environment. The White House says more quietly that Byrd's provision is simply unnecessary at this time.

The potential alliance between conservative Republicans and the Senate's most senior Democrat is an unusual but potentially potent one.

"Politics makes strange bedpersons," Sen. Larry E. Craig, an Idaho Republican, said in outlining what he hopes will be the bargain among mining interests.

Byrd's office said last night that no agreement had been reached. But the influential 81-year-old senator made clear that he intends to get his way regardless of who comes with him. Thousands of coal jobs in his state, he contends, are at stake.

"This court ruling is wrong-headed," Byrd told a rally of about 1,000 coal miners gathered at the Capitol yesterday. "It jeopardizes your jobs. It jeopardizes your hometowns. Your futures have been put on the line.

"We are not going to back down!" he yelled, shaking a fist.

As the senior Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Byrd can make good on his threat. He is in a position to block final action on the any of the five remaining spending bills that must be passed before Congress can finish its budget work and adjourn for the year.

The dispute has already contributed to Congress' failure to meet its goal of adjourning today.

A temporary measure that has kept much of the government running since the fiscal year began Oct. 1 is expected to be extended today for the fourth time to give the legislators another week to work.

Environmental activists in Congress and in outside advocacy groups are outraged at the possibly that Byrd might not only succeed in his own goal but also help Republicans weaken other environmental laws along the way.

Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest of Maryland's Eastern Shore, one of 20 Republicans who have urged Clinton to promise to veto the Byrd provision, called its potential expansion "a reflection of the greed and all the worst things that human beings are capable of."

Brent Blackwelder, president of the advocacy group Friends of the Earth, observed: "This is what happens when you allow one anti-environment provision to stand. Everyone else wants to pile on."

The dispute threatens to involve Vice President Al Gore and perhaps undercut some environmentalists' support for his presidential bid.

Gore has declined to speak out on the Byrd provision. Instead, he's hewing to the White House line that Byrd's language isn't necessary because the effect of the court ruling has been delayed to allow for an appeal to be considered.

"That's not leadership," Blackwelder said of Gore.

Byrd, a crafty 41-year veteran of the legislative process, had hoped to deal with the issue in his usual behind-the-scenes fashion. He is responding to an Oct. 20 ruling by Judge Charles H. Hadden II, who concluded that the practice of filling stream valleys with mining waste violates the Clean Water Act and federal regulations stemming from the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act.

Hadden barred West Virginia officials from issuing new permits for dumping the waste, then suspended his ruling to allow for appeals.

Meanwhile, Byrd and other members of the all-Democratic West Virginia delegation began working quietly to try to void the court decision through language added to one of the many spending bills moving through Congress in the final days of this year's session.

The West Virginians say they had private assurances that the White House would not object to the provision. But the White House stance shifted after environmentalists began to protest.

As of yesterday, the Byrd provision had not found a home, though Craig suggested it might wind up on the foreign aid bill.

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