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Senator Robert C. Byrd has Passed Away

Robert C. Byrd “may come closer to the kind of senator the Founding Fathers had in mind than any other.” — Almanac of American Politics

Senator Robert C. Byrd (D-WV) passed away early this morning at the age of 92. Senator Byrd is the longest serving member of the United States Congress in American history, and as the Senate’s “President Pro Tempore,” Senator Byrd was third in line to the Presidency. According to this website, he cast more than 18,680 roll call votes — more votes than any other Senator in American history — compiling an amazing 97 percent attendance record in his more than five decades of service in the Senate. He ran for office 15 times and never once lost a race.

Driven by desire to see life improved for those in the coalfields where he was raised, Senator Byrd used his position as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee to bring billions of dollars back to his home state. During a life of high achievement and leadership, he considered this his greatest achievement. When a balanced budget amendment was defeated in 1994, Senator Byrd said, “The basic power which is probably more fundamental than any other power in the Constitution is the power of the purse. That power of the purse belongs to the people, and that is where it is vested.”

In 1937, at the age of 19, Senator Byrd married his high-school sweetheart Erma Ora James. The two were married until her passing in March of 2006. They are survived by 2 children, 5 grandchildren, and 6 great-grandchildren. A consumate musician and entertainer (Listen to him play Cripple Creek), Senator Byrd was also a prolific writer, publishing on topics from Senate History to life in the coalfields. He was famous for his knowledge of the United States Constitution and was known to carry a pocket copy with him at all times, often waving it in the air during impassioned speeches on the floor of the United States Senate. Although Senator Byrd was a Democrat, his non-partisanship impressed his colleagues, and he was even considered for a spot on the Supreme Court by President Nixon, a Republican.

As recently as last month, Senator Byrd was demanding that the coal industry respect the miners, land, and people of West Virginia.

The industry of coal must also respect the land that yields the coal, as well as the people who live on the land. If the process of mining destroys nearby wells and foundations, if blasting and digging and relocating streams unearths harmful elements and releases them into the environment causing illness and death, that process should be halted and the resulting hazards to the community abated.

At the urging of many of his constituents, Senator Byrd’s position regarding coal’s place in West Virginia changed slowly over the years. Senator Byrd called our mountains God’s Gift to West Virginia, and spent his final years urging the coal industry to Embrace the Future.

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.

His Senate staff remain some of the hardest working people on Capitol Hill, and have made enormous efforts to find out the facts about the impacts of mountaintop removal on coalfield communities. He proudly stood up against Don Blankenship and the arrogance of Massey Energy. One of his last public actions was to publicly blast Don Blankenship and Massey’s record at Upper Big Branch at a recent Senate hearing on May 20th. You can see the webcast of that here.

For more on the life and times of Senator Robert C Byrd, please see the WV Gazette, NPR, MSNBC, New York Times.

Senator Byrd earned a law degree while serving in Congress, presented here by President John F Kennedy.

From a young age, Senator Byrd was an outstanding fiddler, gracing the stages of the Kennedy Center, the Grand Ol’ Opry, and Hee Haw, even releasing his own album called “Mountain Fiddler.”





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