New Breed of Lobbyists Hail from Appalachia

Lobbyists are everywhere on Capitol Hill. But it's not always high-priced professionals that get lawmakers' attention. A cadre of Appalachian residents has come to lobby for environmental protections from coal-mining waste. For many, it was their first trip to Washington, D.C.

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More than 16,000 lobbyists are registered on Capitol Hill, but not all of them are high-priced professionals.

NPR's Debbie Elliott recently caught up with a group of so-called citizen lobbyists. They came to Capitol Hill from Appalachia to advocate for a clean water bill, legislation that directly affects their lives.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT: These lobbyists don't operate from plush offices on K Street, the noted downtown D.C. strip where influence peddlers reside. They're working from the basement of a Lutheran church just a few blocks from the Capitol. People are gathered at tables, going over lobby packets, and having their version of a power lunch.

Mr. J.W. RANDOLPH (Legislative Associate, Appalachian Voices): We have a lovely lunch table with an assortment of apples and granola bars.

ELLIOTT: That's J.W. Randolph, a Tennessean who moved to Washington to work as a lobbyist for Appalachian Voices. The nonprofit conservation group helped to organize this grassroots lobby week.

Mr. RANDOLPH: We have a hundred and twenty folks here from 20 states and signup sheets have been set up across five or six tables over there.

ELLIOTT: The citizen lobbyists sign up to visit members of Congress and try to persuade them to support the Clean Water Protection Act, a bill they hope will curtail the practice of coal mining by mountaintop removal. That's when coal companies blast rock off a mountain to expose the coal underneath.

Sam Broach(ph) is here from Big Stone Gap, Virginia.

Mr. SAM BROACH (Citizen Lobbyist): The strip mining actually takes the top of the mountain off, pushes it over into the rivers, in the streams and in the valleys.

ELLIOTT: The Clean Water Protection Act would prevent coal companies from disposing of the blasted rock in mountain streams. Broach has been visiting congressional offices with Robert and Barbara Mullens(ph).

Mr. ROBERT MULLENS (Resident, Appalachia, Virginia): We're from Appalachia in Virginia, believe it or not, the name, the town of Appalachia and so...

ELLIOTT: This is the first time any of them have walked the corridors of the Capitol, and they're getting around.

Mr. MULLENS: Pat Kennedy, Barbara Boxer, John Warner and McCarthy… It's hard to see them, you know, most of the time we talk to their aides.

ELLIOTT: For 35 years, the Mullens have lived in what they call a coal camp, homes lining a stream in a mountain holler. Coal companies built them to house miners when traditional underground mining was the way of life in Appalachia. Now, companies have turned to strip mining on the mountaintops, which is cheaper. Mullens has been telling congressional staffers that the procedure is contaminating local drinking water and choking the life from his mountain.

Mr. MULLENS: We used to have a fair-sized stream running out of the coal camp where I live. But now, it's practically gone. We used to (unintelligible) out there when I went fishing. But now, there's none in there, because there's not enough water for them to survive. Because they covered a lot of the streams of on up above, you know, on the mountainsides and coming of these valleys and stuff, that's done that to us. And it's really terrible.

ELLIOTT: Sam Broach says fighting mountaintop coal mining isn't popular back home.

Mr. BROACH: Me and him both are retired coal miners. Active UMWA members, but we don't believe in what they're doing to our mountains. And we're getting a lot of feedb- or flak from our co-workers that we used to work with. You know, they're saying, well, that's putting food on our table.

ELLIOTT: An industry group, the National Mining Association, is against the Clean Water Protection Act. It argues that state and local governments, not Congress, have jurisdiction over what to permit in local waterways. Nonetheless, the Appalachian lobbyists appear to be making some headway.

(Soundbite of people cheering)

ELLIOTT: A team has just returned from Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick's office. She's agreed to be a co-sponsor. Appalachian Voices campaign director Lenny Kohm is thrilled.

Mr. LENNY KOHM (Campaign Director, Appalachian Voices): We have been working really hard on garnering support of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus because they are - they know all about human rights issues and they know how to fight. And Carolyn Kilpatrick is the chair.

ELLIOTT: Judy Bonds(ph) of Rock Creek, West Virginia was on that lobby team.

Ms. JUDY BONDS (Citizen Lobbyist): We are educating America, quite frankly about the dirty little secret in Appalachia, and Americans are appalled by what's happening in Appalachia, they can't believe it.

ELLIOTT: In three days, Bonds and the others here made 150 congressional visits and picked up five new co-sponsors for the Clean Water Protection Act. Lobbyist J.W. Randolph says Appalachia has more champions in Congress than ever before, but probably not enough for a vote in this election year. Randolph acknowledges this is more about building momentum for next year when they hope to have a friendlier White House.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, the Capitol.

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