CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship sparred here last night over mountaintop-removal mining, coal's future and the legitimacy of the science behind global warming.
The debate before an invite-only audience of 950 was organized by University of Charleston President Ed Welch whose aim was to start a discussion in his school's auditorium that would go beyond talking points and reach toward compromise.
His hopes were dashed quickly. Kennedy, the top attorney for the environmental group Waterkeeper Alliance, brushed off his first question to declare mountaintop-removal mining a "sin" that damages Appalachia's environment and people to enrich a wealthy few in a speech peppered with statistics and references to Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Environmental regulations were not responsible for lost mining jobs, Kennedy declared, but mountaintop removal has busted unions and eliminated tens of thousands of workers.
Blankenship responded in kind, hailing his industry the life-blood of West Virginia and painting Kennedy as an outsider with an extreme environmentalist agenda that assaults "people who are teaching your Sunday schools and coaching your Little League."
"You talk about it being a sin to do surface mining," Blankenship said. "The real sin is that the enviros want to focus us on 1 part per billion of iron or talk about windmills when tens of millions of people are starving to death."
Despite the tenor of the 90-minute discussion, Welch saw many positives. "I think the forum allowed each side to communicate and help people to see the other side," he said. "When you have that, it's harder to classify the other as an enemy."
The audience sat quietly except an occasional burst of applause, in contrast with a October federal hearing on mountaintop-removal mining in which the crowd shouted down several opponents of the controversial mining technique, which involves dynamiting mountain peaks to open access to coal and dumping wastes in valleys.
With the hearing fresh in their minds, city officials prepared for conflicts around the debate, but 40 uniformed police officers deployed for the event encountered no serious trouble, university security chief Jack Rinchich said.
Mountaintop backers and foes instead ignored each other as they waited outside the arena in a cold rain. In addition to the 950 ticketed audience members in the auditorium, several hundred other people watched a live feed of the debate in the next-door college gymnasium.
Mountaintop-removal mining has been under assault from environmentalists for many years. Opponents of the mining technique gained allies in Washington last year when the Obama administration announced a multi-front regulatory crackdown with the stated goal of improving protection for waterways that were being buried by mining debris.
The Interior Department is stepping up its reviews of mountaintop permits and preparing tighter regulations on activity near water bodies, and U.S. EPA has placed holds on dozens of mining permits for enhanced environmental review.
The regulatory push has had an impact on West Virginia coal production, which fell more than 11 percent in the past year, the federal Energy Information Agency said.
'A simple debate'
Environmentalists maintain the government should outright ban mountaintop removal. Kennedy and many other environmentalists who attended the debate wore "End Mountaintop Removal" buttons. And three members of the activist group Climate Ground Zero occupied trees inside a Massey mining operation yesterday to protest mountaintop removal.
But Heather Cochran, a junior communications major at the university and a member of Students in Free Enterprise, sees the government efforts to rein in mountaintop mining as an attack on her way of life.
"The last year has been crazy, a complete 180 in the wrong direction," Cochran said.
Cochran said her mother works at a company that builds heavy machinery for surface coal mines and her boyfriend did as well before he was laid off last September. Cochran blames the Obama administration's regulations, and Kennedy's promise of green jobs for West Virginia did nothing to assuage her fears.
Last night's discussion did not change her view, she said.
"A simple debate," Cochran said, "isn't going to sway anyone's opinion on coal."