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Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining No. 1 Issue for W. Virginia U.S. Senate Candidate

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Interview with Ken Hechler, candidate to replace West Virginia's late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


A long-time West Virginia politician and progressive activist is running in the Democratic primary Aug. 28 against incumbent Gov. Joe Manchin to be the party’s candidate in the Nov. 2 special election to replace the late U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd. Ken Hechler, who will be 96 in September, was born in New York, earned a Ph.D. in history and government from Columbia University and held several jobs before moving to West Virginia in 1957. The next year, he won his first election to Congress, and served in the House from 1959 to 1977. After leaving his House seat, he served as West Virginia’s secretary of state from 1985 to 2001.

The former legislator has been a long-time foe of surface coal mining, introducing legislation to abolish it in the early 1960s. He was also principal sponsor of the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. In 2000, he walked more than 500 miles with the late Doris "Granny D" Haddock on her cross-country walk to promote campaign finance reform, something he believed was urgently needed due to the disproportionate contributions of coal company officials to West Virginia politicians.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus caught up with Hechler by phone as he traveled around his state calling for an end to mountaintop removal mining and seeking votes in the upcoming election.

KEN HECHLER: I've always been opposed to surface mining; I think we should characterize mountaintop removal as strip mining on steroids, because it's far more devastating, particularly to the people in the valley. I think the only solution is abolition, rather than regulation. The reason regulation won't work is that the coal industry has deep pockets, and contributes millions of dollars to every member of the legislature, as well as the governor and members of the judicial branch -- the Supreme Court of West Virginia.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And historically, and up to the present day, coal interests have contributed to members of the congressional delegation from West Virginia -- both Democrats and Republicans -- and many other states, though never to you. Now, Ken Hechler, you have a long history of working on mining issues, going back to your early years in Congress in the 1960s. Tell us about some of those efforts.

KEN HECHLER: Early on in my congressional career, I introduced a bill to abolish strip mining within 18 months. I had over 100 sponsors of that bill in the House of Representatives. The problem with my abolition bill was that in the 1970s, when OPEC began to limit and regulate the amount of oil coming into this country, there was a so-called energy crisis in the U.S., which caused many members of Congress to oppose my efforts to abolish strip mining. So I lost support because of the fear that many members had that we would run out of support for energy. I think today the need to abolish mountaintop removal is even more urgent because of the fact that it is possible to mine coal through underground mining, which used to be very dangerous, but since I was able to enact the federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, there's been a dramatic reduction in fatalities. April 5, (2010), 29 miners were killed at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. All 29 miners would be alive today if my 1969 act had been enforced, because there's a provision I wrote into the act that obligates every coal mine to have a stream of fresh air no less than 9,000 cubic feet per minute, but that stipulation was totally ignored by the owners of the Upper Big Branch mine, thereby resulting in the explosion of methane and other explosive gases.

BETWEEN THE LINES: When Sen. Robert Byrd died in office earlier this year, Gov. Joe Manchin appointed a placeholder and announced that he would run for the seat in a special election later this year. And when you announced that you were running against him, you said you weren't running to win, but just to raise the issue of mountaintop removal mining. Are you actively campaigning?

KEN HECHLER: Yes, for example, yesterday, I was down at the Mercer County Fair in Bluefields, W.V., which is the southernmost county of W.V., and I got a tremendously positive reaction from everybody I talked with. And yesterday and this evening, after I finish this interview, I'm going over to what is known as the Multi-Fest, which is a black-supported community celebration with lots of music. Last night, I was there 'til 10:30 p.m., and got a tremendously positive reaction. In fact, I'm getting an overwhelmingly positive reaction from everyone I run into. I'm not just sitting in my office trying to make phone calls. I'm going out all around the 55 counties of the state. My schedule is pretty much packed between now and the 28th of August, when the primary election occurs.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What if you win?

KEN HECHLER: Well, I must say that even though I started not expecting to win, now I'm emphasizing the fact that I'm going to fight to win.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So you may be going back to Congress!

KEN HECHLER: That's entirely possible. Even though I'm three years older than Sen. Byrd, nevertheless, I think you can tell that even though I may have the body of a 95-year-old, I have the mind, the heart, the passion and the vigor of a 35-year-old.

For more information on campaign, visit Hechler's website,

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