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Capito says coal industry will face more intense scrutiny

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R.W-Va., says coal's place in America is being broadly questioned following the explosion last week at a Massey Energy mine that killed 29 men.

"The perception of coal is sort of the umbrella issue here," Capito said in a Monday interview with the Daily Mail editorial board. "What is coal? What is the future of coal?"

The mining disaster, the worst in the U.S. coal industry in 40 years, only adds to the already poor image many people have of coal and mining.

Coal has been the subject of continued federal scrutiny not only for its role in global climate change but the impact mining has on water quality.

Add to that the safety of mine workers, and there is little about the industry left unquestioned. 

Opponents of mountaintop removal mining, including environmentalists like Robert Kennedy Jr., continue to advocate for underground mining.

The argument is that underground mining, as opposed to surface mining, employs more workers and has less environmental impact.

Capito said that idea faces challenges, especially in the wake of last week's disaster.

"Remember Robert Kennedy said, 'Everything needs to go underground,'" she said. "Now you have a problem underground."

As investigations begin into what caused the explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine, Capito said future hearings may contain "a lot of sensationalism." Massey CEO Don Blankenship will likely be dragged to Washington, for instance, she said.

But the investigation is more than necessary, she said.

"I think it's a necessary part of what's going on, especially since we dealt with it four years ago and got bipartisan agreement on what's going on," Capito said. The congresswoman was referring to the Sago mine disaster in 2006 in which 12 men were killed. The disaster led to new federal mine safety laws - laws that appear to have done nothing to mitigate the effects of last week's explosion.

Capito and about 80 other members of Congress have recently formed a "coal caucus," but the caucus would be unable to directly influence upcoming hearings, she said.

Capito said Congress is likely to take up legislation to address the issues stemming from last week's explosion. Those may include increased power for regulators or stiffer penalties for mine companies.

She said there also would most likely be a look at the gaps in the enforcement of current law and/or companies' compliance.

"I mean, what is happening here?" she said.

Still, Capito wants to see mine companies play a "big role" in helping lawmakers find a balanced policy.

She worries, for instance, that the decisions being made by federal environmental regulators are not focused enough on the importance of coal to the economy.

Capito said in conversations with Lisa Jackson, the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, that Jackson has said she explicitly omits economic considerations from her decision-making.

The congresswoman recalled a conversation in which Jackson told her, "The decisions I make are not founded in what kind of impact they have on jobs or the economy."

Capito called those decisions, which could make it nearly impossible to do large-scale surface mining projects, including mountaintop removal, "way over the top."

Also on Monday, Capito said she is hearing a lot of concern from employers about the cost of complying with the health care reform bill that passed Congress last month.

She's also hearing concerns from the general public on federal immigration reforms that might give leniency to illegal immigrants.

She also said constituents are expressing negative feelings toward President Barack Obama and the House's Democratic leader, Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Capito said she has seen the reactions based on positions rather than party, though many controversial votes have been on party lines.

"A lot of it is anti-incumbent, whether it is Democrat or Republican - there just happens to be a lot more incumbent Democrats," she said.

Capito is being challenged in the fall general election by lesser-known Democratic candidate Virginia Graf, a former nun and educator from Charles Town.

Contact writer Ry Rivard at or 304-348-1796.



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