Published on Friday, March 31, 2000 in the Mobile (Alabama) Register
Going Backwards Article of the Month:
Callahan Wins $1.7 Billion For Colombia

If U.S. Senate OKs spending to fight rebels and drug traffickers, several Alabama firms could benefit, including coal company that ships through Mobile.

by Sam Hodges
Mobile Register Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The House of Representatives, at the urging of Rep. Sonny Callahan, voted Thursday to spend $1.7 billion to help Colombia fight Marxist rebels and drug-traffickers within its borders.

Drummond Coal Co. of Jasper, Ala., which has a mining operation in Colombia, had been urging Callahan, R-Mobile, to get out front on the issue.

"Drummond has a huge investment in Colombia," Callahan said. He said he met with Colombian President Andres Pastrana in Washington in February, when Pastrana was lobbying for the aid package.

Also in the meeting was Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., a member of the foreign operations subcommittee chaired by Callahan.

Pastrana began the meeting by telling Pelosi he knew of her admiration for the novels of Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez, a Nobel Prize winner.

When it came time to address Callahan, Pastrana turned to him and said simply, "Drummond Coal."

Garry Neil Drummond, the company president, later personally escorted Pastrana and Colombia's ambassador to the United States, Luis Alberto Moreno, to meetings with Callahan in Washington.

Callahan recently went to Colombia to see for himself whether the aid package, strongly backed by President Clinton, was justified.

After touring the country and meeting with military officials, he decided it was, though he said he worries that if drug trafficking is curtailed there it might simply move to other South American countries.

Callahan acknowledged that Colombian aid is an Alabama issue, and even a Mobile issue, since Drummond is importing millions of tons of Colombian coal through the Alabama State Docks' McDuffie Island Terminal. Alabama Power is burning much of that coal at its Barry Steam Plant north of Mobile.

Callahan said there is no financial benefit for Drummond in the aid package, but added that the company has an interest in helping Pastrana stabilize a country where rebels and drug traffickers control large regions.

Mike House, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist for Drummond, agreed.

"You've got a coal mine in the middle of Colombia, you want a stable country," House said. Describing Pastrana as "a good person," House said, "he's doing the best he can in a bad situation."

House said Drummond's coal operation is a source of pride in Colombia.

"It's a legitimate business that is succeeding in employing people," he said. "It's kind of a showcase of what can happen if it's a stable country."

But the aid to Colombia comes as Drummond and other companies have scaled back coal mining operations in north Alabama, claiming high costs and depleted coal reserves.

Coal mining employment in Alabama dropped by 750 workers, or 18 percent, in 1999, according to United Mine Workers officials, who are concerned about the industry's future in the state.

The House approved an emergency $12.6 billion spending bill Thursday that includes $2.1 billion for the cost of keeping U.S. troops in Kosovo, and the $1.7 billion for Colombia.

The money for Colombia would provide equipment, including 63 helicopters, to military and police there.

Three Alabama companies could benefit from the package, according to John Cox, press aide to Sen. Jeff Sessions of Mo bile.

Cox identified those firms as U.S. Helicopter of Ozark, which rebuilds military helicopters; Sikorski Support Services of Troy, which trains helicopter pilots; and GKN Westland of Tallassee, which has a role in manufacturing a new helicopter that may be part of the package.

Sessions too has heard from Drummond officials about the Colombia aid package, Cox said. Sessions supports the package, but has been critical of President Clinton and Colombian leaders for what he sees as their lack of commitment to defeating the country's leftist rebels, Cox said.

The emergency spend ing bill now moves to the Senate, where its fate is uncertain. Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Pascagoula, has said he favors aid to Colombia, but objects to the size and scope of the emergency spending measure.

House members spent several hours this week debating the Colombia aid package, with advocates saying the money was necessary to curb the flow of cocaine and heroin into the United States, and detractors saying the drug war will only be won by reducing demand here.

2000 Mobile Register.