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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Evolution of Byrd

Air Date: Week of

West Virginia Robert Byrd (D) was the longest serving senator in American history. (Wikipedia creative commons)

Robert Byrd of West Virginia was the longest serving member of Congress in American history. Senator Byrd served 51 years in the U.S. Senate, and six years in the House. Reporter Ken Ward Jr. of the Charleston Gazette tells host Jeff Young how the coal state senator dramatically changed his opinions on environmental issues over the course of his career.


BYRD: My name is Robert C. Byrd. I am a United States Senator and I am an American.

YOUNG: America lost a piece of living history with the death of its longest serving senator. West Virginians, like me, felt a deeper sense of loss. Senator Byrd, with his white hair and red vest, was as much a symbol of our state as the red cardinal and the black bear. His loyalty to West Virginia and the U.S. constitution never wavered – but Senator Byrd was willing to change. He changed his views on race and war and after decades of defending the coal industry, Senator Byrd was changing again, in his final years. Reporter Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette was one of the first to take note.

WARD: In the mid- to late 90’s, Senator Byrd was among of those who pushed to block the United States’ ratification of the Kyoto protocol, which would have limited greenhouse gas emissions. Senator Byrd was very clearly a friend of coal, and did everything he could to protect and defend that industry.

YOUNG: And when it came to mountaintop removal mining, Senator Byrd in the 90s, he was right there in the trenches with the mining industry.

WARD: Senator Byrd fought very hard in the Senate, he failed in this effort, but he fought very hard in the Senate, to rewrite portions of the Clean Water Act to specifically approve valley fields and allow coal operators to continue burying streams.

Senator Byrd made it clear that anything that was going to curtail or limit mountaintop removal, he was going to stop. Senator Byrd referred to environmentalists as, I’m paraphrasing here, head-in-the-clouds individuals that would have us live in a utopia among old-growth forests, but didn’t have any realization of the economic impact of the coal industry and the fact that the coal industry puts food on the tables of people in his home state.

YOUNG: And this was not that long ago, this was—

WARD: 1999.

YOUNG: So, here in recent years, however, we saw a very different kind of rhetoric and message coming from Senator Byrd. What was that about?

West Virginia Robert C. Byrd (D) was the longest serving senator in American history. (Wikipedia creative commons)

WARD: One thing to keep in mind in understanding this, it really was a transformation in progress of his thinking. In December of last year, he issued a long statement and gave a speech, encouraging the coal industry to embrace the future, to not pretend climate change wasn’t happening and that greenhouse gas emissions weren’t affecting the climate, to seek some sort of middle ground on mountaintop removal issues.

BYRD: West Virginians may demonstrate anger towards the Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, over mountaintop removal mining, but we risk the very probable consequence of shouting ourselves out of any productive dialogue with the EPA and our adversaries here in the Congress.

YOUNG: Ken Ward, that sounds to me like it’s a rebuke of what other West Virginia political leaders were doing at the time.

WARD: Oh, it absolutely was a direct rebuke of Governor Manchin, of Congressman Rahall, of Senator Rockefeller, all of whom were engaged in this increasingly extreme rhetoric, whereby, any small step towards trying to get a grip on the impacts of the coal industry was immediately attacked, very vocally, as anti-jobs. And Senator Byrd was not just speaking to the people of West Virginia, but I think, was speaking to his fellow political leaders saying, ‘this isn’t going to get us anywhere. This isn’t the way to try and deal with these issues.’

YOUNG: And here’s another excerpt from that speech:

BYRD: 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 not to say that, but to stay at the table.

YOUNG: That’s a remarkable statement on climate change from someone who, not that long ago, was working very hard to block any action on climate change.

WARD: And, just as remarkable as that statement is, one of Senator Byrd’s last roll call votes in the United States Senate, was a vote against the Murkowski resolution to over-turn EPA’s findings that climate change was a threat to public health and welfare. And among his reasons for doing so, he said the Murkowski resolution was ignoring science. And Senator Byrd said West Virginians ought not to ignore the science of climate change--it’s really remarkable.

YOUNG: One of his last big messages to West Virginia was a plea for a reasoned dialogue. Do you see any indication that people there heard him?

WARD: In West Virginia I think you no longer have anybody who is a major elected official or major political figure who is really interested in confronting these issues in a meaningful way. He was really a lone voice on this, and he was also now becoming almost a referee on these issues with climate where he was saying, ‘Ok now folks, just standing around and yelling at each other and calling EPA names isn’t going to get us anywhere. Let’s talk together and find ways forward.’ And now we don’t have that voice helping us do that.

YOUNG: Ken Ward Jr. at the Charleston Gazette, thank you very much.

WARD: Thank you, Jeff.



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