Hundreds of West Virginia miners, their families and other boosters headed to Washington, D.C., Tuesday to urge congressional support of the coal industry.
Around 200 of them stopped at the state Capitol on their way to Wednesday's rally. Gov. Joe Manchin, House Speaker Rick Thompson and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin were among several state officials on hand to see them off.
The Stand Up for Coal Jobs rally aims to attract thousands of miners and supporters from coal-producing states. An advocacy group, Citizens for Coal, the Federation for American Coal, Energy and Security, and the West Virginia Coal Association are among those involved.
"This is an educational trip, to educate members of the Congress and Senate about the importance of coal to this nation's economic viability and our national security," said organizer Rick Horton, founder of the group Citizens for Coal. "That's what this is about, and to celebrate the American coal miner."
Miner Ronald Nelson is making the trip from Lincoln County with his son Tyler, a Marshall University student. The elder Nelson sees proposals targeting the mountaintop removal method of surface mining as a first step toward abolishing all coal mining.
The 54-year-old said he's worried whether the Patriot Coal Corp. surface mine where he works will be able to get the permits it needs several years down the road, given the handling of recent permits by federal regulators.
"We want to tell Washington, 'We don't a bailout, we don't need a stimulus. We just need a work permit,'" he said.
Nelson said he believes Manchin and other state leaders are doing the best they can for the industry. But he has not decided whether to support Manchin, the Democratic nominee, in this year's special U.S. Senate race, he said.
Nelson does plan to vote for Rep. Nick Rahall, who represents the southern coalfields in the state's 3rd U.S. House District. Like Manchin, the Democrat faces a GOP challenger who has sought to make coal an issue in their race.
"He's doing an excellent job," Nelson said of the 33-year incumbent.
State Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia and his party's candidate in the 1st U.S. House District, also attended Tuesday's send-off. The Legislature is meeting this week for its monthly interim study session.
Opponents of mountaintop removal are planning a counter-rally featuring country music performer Big Kenny. They have filed lawsuits and conducted numerous demonstrations on and around mining sites to decry the practice's environmental toll.
Mountaintop removal involves blasting away ridgetops to expose the coal seams beneath, with the leftover soil and rock dumped into the valleys below. The industry considers it highly efficient.