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Rahall comment on coal miners stirs GOP ire

By Whitney Burdette, Capitol reporter

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A comment Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., made to political blog Politico has sparked fierce backlash from conservative groups.

Rahall, speaking to reporter Erica Martinson for a series on how national policy issues are affecting 2014 midterm elections, said substance abuse is a big reason coal miners can’t find jobs in Southern West Virginia.

“Times are tough,” he told Martinson. “People turn to drugs — no question about it. Our coal companies can’t hire coal miners because they can’t pass a drug test.”

Since the article was published Thursday morning, Rahall’s Republican opponent, state Sen. Evan Jenkins, and other conservative groups such as Americans for Prosperity issued statements calling Rahall’s comments “absurd,” “wrong” and “deeply offensive.”

“As someone who screens and drug tests hundreds and hundreds of coal miners for potential employment in the mines, I can tell you that Nick Rahall’s comments are totally wrong and deeply offensive to the miners with whom I work,” Mike Grose of Elite Coal Services said in a statement issued by the Jenkins campaign.

“Since 2013, out of several hundred potential miners we’ve drug tested, just eight have tested positive. These hard-working men seeking employment are not the drug addicts Nick Rahall’s comments make them out to be.”

Elite Coal Services is one of the state’s leading coal contract labor service companies, recruiting and training miners to fill available positions at surface and underground mine sites across the state. Grose also was interviewed for the Politico piece.

But the Rahall campaign contends his comments are anti-drug, not anti-coal miner. Rahall co-chairs the prescription drug caucus and has advocated the funding and strengthening of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s National Drug Take-Back Program, which allows people to safely dispose of expired or unwanted prescription medication. Earlier this month, he was recognized as 2014 Legislator of the Year, due in part to his efforts in support of local, state and federal drug law enforcement.

“Anyone who would try to twist his comments about the drug problem in West Virginia is delusional, out-of-touch and just plain dishonest,” said Samuel Raymond with the Rahall campaign. “Nick Rahall has and always will stand up to the EPA and anyone else to fight to protect coal miners and their jobs. And all the attacks from Evan Jenkins’ out-of-state billionaire puppet masters won’t change that.”

In the Politico article, Jenkins also notes the increasing drug problem in Appalachia. He said with the economic downturn, many people lost their jobs and turned to substance abuse as a way to cope.

A good job is “not going to get everybody off drugs, but there’s a lot of people who have lost hope,” he said. “And tragically, where they turn to a lot of times is the pain pills, or now heroin.”

Many jobs, particularly those in the mining industry, require drug tests, and the results of miners’ drug tests are sent to the state. Rahall said in the article he worries men and women pursuing mining jobs, but who have a history of drug abuse, may lose out on employment.

Republican groups argue not only are Rahall’s comments wrong, he misses the point. According to the National Republican Congressional Committee, drugs aren’t the reason miners can’t get hired.

“Nick Rahall is so out of touch with his district that he thinks the reason why there are no coal jobs is because coal miners can’t pass drug tests,” said Ian Prior, northeast regional press secretary for the NRCC. “Not only is this totally offensive, but it is completely wrong. The reason why coal companies aren’t hiring is because Barack Obama is waging war on coal and Nick Rahall has been more than happy to vote against coal interests in Congress to keep his prized Washington status intact.”

In March, Rahall told The Hill newspaper he “probably” supported former President George W. Bush’s policies and agenda more than Obama’s.

“I will support him when he’s good for West Virginia, and I will oppose him when he’s bad for West Virginia,” he said of Obama. When asked if the current president is good overall for West Virginia, Rahall replied “Probably not.”

Despite that, he said he doesn’t plan to change parties.

“I’m a Democrat, born a Democrat, am a Democrat and will die a Democrat,” he said.

Rahall also spoke out against a proposed Environmental Protection Agency that could have dire affects on the coal industry and coal-fired power plants, introducing bipartisan legislation that would place a five year moratorium on similar EPA rules unless Congress approves them. Despite that, conservatives contend he continues to supports policies that are bad for West Virginia and his district.

“Of all people, the hardworking West Virginians who make up the lion’s share of miners are the ones most concerned about drug use in the mines since it threatens their safety,” said Jenkins campaign strategist Andy Sere. “While some folks have indeed turned to drugs in the wake of the Obama-Rahall assault on their livelihoods, painting thousands of unemployed coal miners with a broad brush as unemployable drug addicts is grossly inaccurate and insensitive.”

On Thursday, 75 miners at two different Patriot Coal sites in Southern West Virginia received layoff notices. Cliffs Natural Resources announced earlier this week its preliminary plans to idle the Pinnacle Mine in Wyoming County, affecting up to 450 jobs. Cliffs issued the 60-day WARN notice, as required by federal law, to workers on Wednesday.

Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or whitney.burdette@dailymailwv.com. Follow her at www.Twitter.com/wburdette_DM.


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