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Mountain Heroes: Ken Hechler

My name is Ken .

I'm 97 and a fighter.
And I'm still fighting to save our mountains.

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tougher it gets, the more exciting it gets when you can see victory. I’m still hoping that before I leave this world I get to see that victory, which I’m sure is going to come.

Ken Hechler: My Mountain Story

Ken Hechler, 97, is one of West Virginia’s most renowned and longest-serving public servants. As a congressman, Hechler represented West Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1977 and later served as West Virginia Secretary of State from 1985 to 2001. A decorated World War II veteran, before Hechler was elected to public office, he earned a PhD at Columbia University; became teaching faculty at Columbia, Princeton University, and Barnard College; and served as a White House aide to President Harry Truman. In his early years in Congress, Rep. Hechler became an outspoken opponent of strip mining — and drafted the nation’s first law setting up safety measures for coal miners, the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1969.

The congressman also joined the civil rights movement, becoming in 1965 the only member of Congress to march with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. In 1974, despite his efforts to defeat it, an amendment passed that would allow a new form of strip mining called mountaintop removal mining. He was forced to watch as coal companies brought their explosives, draglines and bulldozers to the hills of West Virginia. As the years went on, he saw “King Coal” and its deep pockets win the political interests of many of his colleagues in Congress, and in turn, he saw the situation back home in West Virginia get more and more dire. To this day, he dedicates himself to saving the mountains and waters of his state. In August, at age 96, he mounted a political campaign for the open Senate seat of the late Sen. Robert Byrd, running only to raise awareness of mountaintop removal mining. Here, Rep. Hechler explains why his fight to stop mountaintop removal mining is a fight for justice, and why it means so much to him to live to see the end of it.

This is Ken's story:

In the 1960s, I was very inspired by a book by Harry Caudill called Night comes to the Cumberlands. It told of the damages done to Eastern Kentucky by strip mining. I became very interested in what I could do to end this devastating practice. So I introduced a bill in the house to abolish strip mining. Within 18 months I had over 100 co-sponsors to that bill, and I also lobbied environmental organizations all over the nation and told them to join me in putting pressure on Congress to hold hearings over my bill. In 1971, the House of Representatives Committee on Interior and Insular affairs Subcommittee on Mines and Mining scheduled a hearing. When I testified before that hearing, I met very vigorous opposition from both Republicans and Democrats. They kept arguing that strip mining was a lot safer than underground or deep mining. I argued with them that since I had authored a very important statute called the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and which since had been signed into law, that the number of casualties in underground mines had dramatically reduced. They argued very strongly with me that we couldn’t afford to abolish strip mining and that we had to regulate it instead of abolishing it.

Then in July of 1974, while we were debating how to regulate strip-mining, a congressman from Wyoming named Teno Roncalio introduced an amendment authorizing mountaintop removal. I rounded up a lot of votes against it, but they passed that amendment. After I left Congress in 1977, Congress sent to President Carter a bill called the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. I told President Carter personally that the bill was not going to work because the coal industry had deep pockets and they could buy off governors and judicial officials and members of legislative bodies, which is exactly what has happened. That was a very weak deal which has never been well enforced. Even though there were some pretty good people in the enforcement section, they finally became discouraged and simply resigned. That led the way to the expansion of mountaintop removal. Here in West Virginia, we had one very strong advocate of enforcement on the Supreme Court of Appeals. Because he was such a strong advocate, the coal industry spent 3 million dollars to defeat him and put in a person who was sympathetic to mountaintop removal. And coal is king in West Virginia, so it is difficult for those of us who want to protect to the mountains to make any progress.

We’re in a very difficult situation today because the people who have jobs in mountaintop removal are saying that West Virginia needs these jobs, and that coal is providing jobs -- even though mountaintop removal employs less workers than underground mining. You know we used to have 45,000 coal miners in west Virginia, now we have less than 20,000. It doesn’t take many years or many miners to engage in this devastating practice. A lot of them are not coal miners, but explosives experts. Experts in how to blow up a mountain. We could have a lot more jobs if we go green. In fact, the tourism industry in West Virginia is a growing industry. People come to West Virginia not to view moonscapes, but to view landscapes.\

My fight is to save the mountains and protect the mountains. I’ve been talking about protecting the mountains, but what I really mean is protecting the people. It’s the people who deserve the protections.

I may be 97 years old, but I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me. And I fight to win, not to be beaten by money. I didn’t win my race for Senate last month, which is really the point, the bottom line of running for office. Big money was on the other side. It’s not easy for a candidate who stands up for the people to get campaign contributions. It’s easier for those who support the violators of the Clean Water Act to get the millions from the coal industry, which realizes the value of persuading people in power to be on their side.

It’s amazing to me that every reporter who has ever come here to see mountaintop removal mining comes away with the feeling that those people who are fighting against mountaintop removal are fighting on the side of justice. And many people from foreign countries have come here and have come to the same conclusion. Every great movement in this country has eventually resulted in justice. I was the only member of Congress to march with Martin Luther King, Jr., in Selma, Alabama when he organized that march from Selma to Montgomery. It was such an inspiration to have a great leader like him. We need more Larry Gibsons and people who can mobilize those who really believe in justice. There have been many uphill fights that have come out successful, and I wish we could see it for the fight to end mountaintop removal mining. There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but the tougher it gets, the more exciting it gets when you can see victory. I’m still hoping that before I leave this world I get to see that victory, which I’m sure is going to come.

I’m always fond of quoting the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States. “We the people” -- not we the corporations, nor we the polluters, but “We the people,”-- “ in order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice…” -- that’s the inspiration that the framers of our Constitution were talking about. When Lincoln, in his Gettysburg address, talked about a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, it really articulated the best statement of how government ought to be run and how every politician ought to have as his moral compass set to just that one word: justice.

Photo by Mark Schmerling.