Massey Energy President Don Blankenship and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Thursday evening debated the future of coal and the science of climate change, agreeing on little but drawing still more national attention to the crucial issues that face the Appalachian coalfields.
Blankenship said coal has built the nation and must remain strong to protect national security and ensure a high quality of life for Americans.
"The mission statement for coal is prosperity for this country," Blankenship told a packed house at the University of Charleston. "This industry is what made this country great and if we forget that, we're going to have to learn to speak Chinese."
But Kennedy argued giant mining machines have cost thousands of miners their jobs at the same time that mountaintop removal has been destroying ancient peaks, burying and otherwise polluting pristine streams and eliminating once-vital rural communities.
"This is the worst environmental crime that has ever happened in our history," Kennedy said. "These companies are liquidating this state for cash with these gigantic machines."
Blankenship, the coal industry's most outspoken executive, and Kennedy, the passionate son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, squared off in what organizers billed as a "Forum on the Future of Energy."
The University of Charleston hosted the event and the school's president, Ed Welch, moderated the 90-minute discussion. A capacity crowd filled a nearly 1,000-seat auditorium and overflowed into a nearby gymnasium to watch on giant video screens. It was televised and broadcast via radio statewide and on the Internet around the world.
Coal industry supporters scheduled a "Stand up for Jobs Rally" before the debate, but it appeared disorganized and a cold, heavy rain may have reduced any enthusiasm for it. Across town earlier in the day, environmental activists hung a large anti-mountaintop removal banner on the South Side Bridge in downtown Charleston.
A significant contingent of regional, national and even international media attended, drawn by the star power of the Kennedy name and Blankenship's reputation for bluntly defending the coal industry.
Blankenship has argued that global warming is a fraud or "Ponzi scheme," and complained that out-of-state environmental "extremists" are wrongly trying to shut down mountaintop removal mining. Kennedy has said Blankenship's company is a "criminal enterprise" that destroys mountains, pollutes streams and endangers the safety of its workers.
Welch had said prior to the event that he hoped to push Kennedy and Blankenship to get beyond sound bites and actually discuss coal and energy issues with him.
"We don't do a very good job in our society of having reasonable arguments or discussions of important issues," Welch said Thursday morning on the MetroNews radio show "Talkline." "I'm going to push the participants to go beyond the sound bites and really respond to each other, and see if we can find some common ground."
And Blankenship and Kennedy indeed did engage directly a few times, most notably when Kennedy rattled off a list of Massey's continued Clean Water Act violations -- thousands of them in a recent year -- and asked the coal executive if mountaintop removal could be done without violating the law.
Blankenship held up a plastic bottle he said contained runoff from a mine site. He said it was clean, and that the real water pollution issue in Appalachia is raw sewage continuing to be dumped into streams.
Also, Blankenship said Massey has "greatly reduced the violation numbers," and that Massey is "doing everything we can to comply with the law every day."
But Kennedy noted Massey's own data, submitted to federal regulators, indicated an increase in violation frequency since a record $20 million Clean Water Act settlement two years ago. And, Kennedy told Blankenship he hadn't answered the original question of whether mountaintop removal could be done without violating the law.
Blankenship responded, "I don't think that it's possible without a single violation, but if anybody can do it, this industry in West Virginia can do it."
Thursday's discussion occurred against the background of declining coal production in Central Appalachia, and projections that the region's coal output might drop by half before the end of this decade -- even without any new greenhouse gas emissions limits or restrictions on mountaintop removal coal mining.
Industry officials and regional business leaders, along with coalfield politicians, have blasted the Obama administration for conducting a "war on coal," with efforts to pass climate change legislation and more closely scrutinize strip-mining permits.
Several times during the event, Kennedy cited the recent statement by Sen. Robert D. Byrd, D-W.Va., urging the coal industry to "embrace the future" and chiding environmentalists for being unrealistic in thinking the nation could simply stop all coal production.
"We're not going to get rid of all mining in this state, and I'm not advocating that," Kennedy said. "[But] the state needs to start diversifying and transitioning to a new energy economy."
Blankenship responded that West Virginia's laws are too difficult to comply with and its legal climate too harsh on businesses. And, he said those who attack the coal industry are attacking their neighbors who work in the industry -- "the people who are teaching your Sunday schools and coaching your Little League."
But Kennedy said coal operators are only able to compete in the world energy market by shifting onto society the costs of the pollution, workplace safety and climate change impacts of their product.
"All of these costs are imposed on the rest of us," Kennedy said. "We should have free markets with no subsidies. If we did that, there is no way your industry could compete."