By Ramsey Cox
Walking into Rep. David McKinley's (R-W.Va.) office, the first thing a visitor notices is the life-size poster above his couch of coal miner James Brandon and his young daughter, Kailee.
"I'm looking out for this guy right here," McKinley said, pointing to the poster.
"When I came to Washington, I found out that the mining industry did not have very much respect and these individuals were treated as numbers and I'm trying to personalize it for anyone who comes into the office."
"This coal miner, he's real. He's a human being. He's a father, a brother, an uncle, a neighbor, the guy who sits in front of you in church. He's not just a statistic."
McKinley's district is in coal country and the proud seventh-generation West Virginian is fighting to protect it.
"People don't understand if they've never been in a coal mine," McKinley said. "This guy has to crawl on his hands and knees all day long for weeks and months on end until he gets that coal, just so you and I can go home and have electricity and turn on our air conditioning I want them to be held with a higher esteem here in Congress."
One way that McKinley has tried to raise the profile of coal is through H.R. 2273, the Coal Residuals Reuse and Management Act. That bill passed the House in October 2011, but never got a vote in the Senate.
As a way to force the issue, McKinley tried to instruct the highway and transportation conferees to consider it. But that, too, failed. McKinley remains undeterred.
"I didn't come here to just push it and lose it," he said.
The measure would have instructed coal-burning power plants to reuse the coal ash -- or fly ash -- that is produced from burning the coal in other products.
"Fly ash is an unavoidable byproduct of burning coal. When you burn coal, you get ash, just like if you throw a log on the fireplace. The question for the utility companies is, "What do they do with the ash?' " McKinley said.
"American ingenuity at its best found that you can mix it into compounds and make drywall, ceramic tile, bowling balls, ceramic counter tops, cosmetics and toothpaste. But the biggest use of it has been in concrete."
McKinley said the coal ash recycling industry already employs more than 300,000 workers, and that's with just 40 percent of coal ash being reused.
"This was a jobs bill," McKinley said. "What we were doing was allowing it to be used in concrete so we could pour more roads. If we pave more roads, we hire more people. If we build more bridges, we're going to hire more people -- it's a jobs bill. But they got caught up in their ideology and war [on coal], so we lost that. But we'll come back another way."
McKinley said one reason his bill failed was because the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has tried to scare lawmakers into thinking that coal ash is hazardous, despite the results from EPA studies done during the Clinton administration that say it isn't.
"I don't want to do away with the EPA. There are a lot of scientists there [who] are probably well intended, but right now I think it's become something of a rogue group caught up by issues of ideology rather than science," McKinley said.
"The science is very clear on things like fly ash and the mercury and arsenic levels in that, it's very comparable to what you'd find in your backyard. We don't consider our backyards toxic, but in Washington, people use that word toxic inappropriately because they're not scientifically trained and it's a scare tactic.
"The best way I can counter it is, "Do you consider the apple juice you buy in the super market toxic because apple juice has arsenic in it?' It's just a trace element, but it's there. And there's just a trace element of mercury in coal, but that's toxic and apple juice is not. It's inconsistent because we don't have a war on apples, we have a war on coal."
Serving on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, McKinley said another issue he plans to work on is indoor air quality.
"The EPA says on their own website that the indoor air quality can be as much as 96 times worse than the air outside," McKinley said. "So when people attack our corporations for discharges from smokestacks and water, think about it, why aren't we worried about our indoor quality? Because we spend 90 percent of our time indoors."
McKinley said furniture, paint and carpeting all emit toxins that can damage health.
"If the people here in Congress would just back off their attack on fossil fuels and industry and manufacturers and pay a little bit more attention to what goes on in our homes and our offices, perhaps we would have a more healthy work environment rather than attacking our job creators," McKinley said.