By HOPPY KERCHEVAL
MORGANTOWN -- "I get it! I get it!"
West Virginia Third District Congressman Nick Rahall repeated that to me near the end of our interview last week on Talkline. The veteran Democrat sounded exasperated and possibly even worried.
What the Congressman says he "gets" is that coal miners, their families, coal companies and businesses that depend on the coal industry in his southern West Virginia district are angry because they see coal under siege.
That was evident recently when more than 700 people -- mostly coal sympathizers -- crowded into a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers meeting about surface mining. Several hundred more rallied outside the Charleston Civic Center because there was not enough room in the theatre where the meeting was held.
The source of discontent is the EPA's recent decision to delay issuance of permits for 79 surface and mountaintop removal mines in Appalachia, including 23 in West Virginia. But the controversy is bubbling over from the highly technical aspects of permits and into the far more emotional argument of whether the Obama Administration is purposely making life difficult for the coal industry.
Rahall is wedged in this fight tighter than a roof bolt.
Many coal-sympathetic constituents blame President Obama for coal's problems, and they remember that Rahall supported candidate Obama. Now their anger toward Obama is also being directed to Rahall.
They also expect Rahall to use what should be his considerable influence in Washington to get the permit process moving again. Permits mean coal can be mined which means jobs.
Rahall says he's working on the problem daily, meeting with the White House and the EPA, pressuring the EPA to explain what the rules are for issuing the permits. "They (EPA) know there needs to be clarity," Rahall said on Talkline.
But Rahall is measuring his words carefully. He doesn't want to take the politically expedient approach of blasting the EPA publicly for foot-dragging, then go into a meeting with the agency's decision makers and try to win an argument.
Strategically, Rahall is playing this correctly...for the moment. But the outcome here is critical. The Congressman can feel the heat as if he were sitting next to a coal-burning stove. He knows people are worked up and looking for somebody to blame.
"I'm on their side," Rahall said of the coal miners and their families, sounding more than a little defensive.
Rahall still hopes that the EPA/Obama Administration wants to allow surface mining to go forward. If Rahall is right, the veteran Congressman can be a valuable asset is getting the permitting mess straightened away.
However, if the Obama Administration via the EPA is, in fact, trying to strangle coal then Rahall and other West Virginia political leaders who have supported Mr. Obama are going to look like rubes -- their support taken for granted and their state ruined by elites who are intent moving away from "dirty" energy sources.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday.
By HOPPY KERCHEVAL