Blankenship, who was raised in a single-parent household, rose from poverty in the Appalachian coalfields to become CEO of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy, the region's largest coal operator with more than 6,000 employees.
Kennedy serves as Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, Chief Prosecuting Attorney for the Hudson Riverkeeper and President of Waterkeeper Alliance. He is also a Clinical Professor and Supervising Attorney at Pace University School of Law’s Environmental Litigation Clinic and is co-host of Ring of Fire on Air America Radio. Earlier in his career he served as Assistant District Attorney in New York City.
The purpose of the evening’s debate was “to ask some challenging and direct questions, because they are the questions that people are interested in,” Welch stated.
Prior to the debate, Welch told the Coal Valley News that neither Blankenship nor Kennedy, were given the questions in advance of the evening’s debate. The reason, Welch said, was to foster dialogue between the two men, not the reading of prepared statements.
It was speculated prior to the debate that the topic of surface mining and mountain top removal coal mining would be discussed.
The debate was televised, broadcast on the internet and radio by state, national and international news media.
With approximately 950 people in attendance, in numbers that appeared to be an equal showing of Blankenship supporters and Kennedy supporters, there was a bit of surprise expressed among a few members of the media regarding the calm and decorum of the crowd.
Missing from the debate were picketers and protest lines that have become ever present at venues where coal and mountain top removal mining are placed center stage.
Instead, a large crowd filled every seat inside the auditorium, with several hundred more filling bleachers and seats in an additional viewing room located in the University of Charleston’s gymnasium.
“There are 950 of us here, with much diversity, gathered together in an auditorium, in a college campus, across the river from the capitol of a state that is rich in energy producing natural resources. The future of energy is vital to this state, as of course to the people of this country and to the people around the world,” Welch said.
It was decided by means of a coin toss that Don Blankenship would be given the first question of the evening.
“Don, when you think about the future of energy, what is your primary concern?” Welch asked.
“I think it’s hard to say of just one primary concern. But there are two primary concerns and that would be the security of the country and the quality of life both in this country and throughout the world,” Blankenship stated.
“The mission statement for coal is prosperity for this country, and security. And to do that, we have to produce a lot of energy in this country, and we have to do to it at a low cost. And we have to do it with the environment in mind, and we have to manage the resources we have to get the optimum use out of them, so all those things together, I think, is what an energy policy should be about.,” he said.
“Let me quickly say before we go on that I want to thank Mr. Kennedy for lending his presence here tonight, you know, his name brings great attention to this debate, which we feel is an important debate,” Blankenship stated. “I think it is an important issue, not only to West Virginia, but also the rest of the world.”
The same question was posed to Robert Kennedy.
“I feel a strong connection with West Virginia. I come here, and have been coming here for many years, for recreational purposes – both the New and the Gauley Rivers,” Kennedy began. “But most importantly, my family has a strong connection with this state. We were brought up understanding that John Kennedy would not have been President of the United States if it were not for West Virginia, He launched his 1960 campaign in this auditorium, in the state of West Virginia,” Kennedy said.
“My father spent much, much time here and he loved the people of West Viriginia. They established a very close bond with them. But one thing my father always openly wondered about was how was it that this state, which had probably the richest natural resources of perhaps any state, also had the poorest people – 49th in terms of the wealth of its people,’ Kennedy recalled.
“And he understood the answer to that; which was a historical answer, that in the 1890s to 1910s con men from outside of this state came to southern West Virginia and swindled landowners from the coal under their properties, so that today 90% or more of the coal in West Virginia are owned by out-of-state interests and those interests have been liquidating this state for cash.
“That process was aggravated 20 years ago with the growth of this new, very destructive kind of coal mining, which is mountaintop removal. I fought that mining for many, many years. I have flown all across central Appalachia and I’ve seen something that I think if the American people could see it, there would be a revolution in this country. We are cutting down the Appalachian mountains – these historic landscapes where Daniel Boone and Davy Crocket roamed - the oldest ecosystem in our country, a place where our culture is rooted. And we’re doing it with these giant machines that costs hundreds of millions of dollars and they practically dispense of the need of human labor, which is precisely the point,” he said.
“When my father was fighting strip mining, which was much smaller back then in the 60s, I recall a conversation I had with him when I was 14 years old, where he said to me, ‘They’re not just destroying the environment, they’re permanently impoverishing these communities, because there is no way that they can ever reestablish an economy on these barren landscapes that they leave behind, and they’re doing it to break the unions.’ And that is exactly what happened,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy argued that more than a million miles of forest had been destroyed, more than 2,000 streams buried, the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb a week was being detonated in nitrate explosives in southern Appalachia, and that more coal was being taken out of West Virginia than in 1964. The only exception, he said, was that in the 1960s there was more money being given to back to the people in West Virginia than there is today.
According to Kennedy, it was more than the devastating ramifications to the environment that concerned him. "What we're fighting here is not just the destruction — the massive and worst destruction of our environment," Kennedy said. "All of the institutions that are key to a functioning democracy are under assault because of this industry."
“It is American values that we are fighting for in this battle,” Kennedy said.
Both men were equally passionate about how they viewed mountaintop removal coal mining. Blankenship advocated MTR mining while Kennedy adamantly opposed the practice.
In response to Kennedy’s claims, Blankenship argued, “It’s typical for the environmental movement to use sensationalism, rhetoric, emotionalism and untruths. The fact of the matter is that there are hundreds of millions of dollars of payroll paid to people in this State, hundreds of millions of dollars of coal severance tax to the State. Ninety-nine percent of the electricity in this state comes from mining coal. The environmental stewardship in the mining of coal in this state is second to none in the world,” Blankenship said.
Yet, several times during the debate, it was Blankenship who appealed to the crowd’s emotions – and loyalty. “The people you are criticizing are your neighbors, your church leaders, your teachers,” Blankenship said.
“There is so much rhetoric that it’s tough to deal with in these kinds of discussions,” Blankenship said at one point.
Kennedy cited West Virginia University Professor Michael Hendryx’s research studies suggesting that people living near coal mines have more health problems, Blankenship countered that Americans live longer than people in other in the world without electricity, where life expectancy and other health measures fall far below West Virginians, such as Angola, where life expectancy is a mere 39-years.
For many in Boone County and the surrounding areas, mountaintop mining provides a living by putting food on the table and paying the bills. For just as many others, it pollutes water and encroaches upon family homesteads and sacred lands.
“I’ve been to Whitesville, Lindytown, Blair,” Kennedy said. “These were once thriving towns,” he said, further stating that he has since returned to Lindytown and has witnessed how the town is filled with houses that are boarded up. “These towns have been emptied out, so I don’t see how we can say this industry is sustainable for the community,” Kennedy said, further noting that the Council of Churches in West Virginia has deemed mountaintop removal coal mining a “sin.” “They say mountaintop removal mining is a sin because of the impacts it has on human beings and the communities,” Kennedy said.
At this point, Blankenship rebutted with a comment on the extremism of the environmental movement, further stating, “In Lindytown, we paid the people more than their houses were valued at.” Blankenship commented, “We have bought many houses in West Virginia,” noting that he believes the families his company has bought out have probably moved on to better things.
The real sin, according to Blankenship, is when scientists falsify evidence to promote what he calls a “ponzi scheme” based on theories of global warming. According to Blankenship, the coal industry is filled with people who are genuinely trying to create jobs. “The people who are out there standing in the way of that are in the wrong,” he said.
Where Blankenship maintained that coal built this country during the Industrial Revolution, helped win World War I and World War II, and is making India and China prosperous, Kennedy countered with studies on alternate forms of energy such as wind and solar power facilities. "This industry is what made this country great and if we forget that, we're going to have to learn to speak Chinese."
Kennedy argued throughout the debate for an end to mountaintop removal mining, asserting that the same coal mined underground would provide more jobs.
Blankenship countered that the reason West Virginia’s economy isn’t more diverse is that politicians think that because they have all of the coal severance tax and revenue off of coal, that they don’t have to worry about the future.
Kennedy summed up his argument by citing Massey’s reports of 12,900 violations of the federal Clean Water Act. These violations came in a single year, following an already unprecedented lawsuit against Massey for violations to the Clean Water Act that resulted in a $20 million federal fine. “Is it possible to do mountaintop removal mining without violating the Clean Water Act?”
Blankenship eventually acknowledged that it was impossible to do mountaintop mining without breaking a law, stating, "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."
Blankenship argued that the EPA (Environmental Proection Agency) rules are unreasonable and “causing this country to be non-competitive; it’s costing us jobs, it will cost the teachers their pension plans if we don’t begin to have a little bit of common sense.”
Blankenship held up a plastic bottle he said contained runoff from a mine site, claiming it was “clean.” He did not, however, drink any of the water to substantiate his claim.
He then argued that the “real water pollution issue” in West Virginia is the raw sewage that is pumped into streams and waterways.
After 90 minutes of debate, neither side convinced the other but the issues were fully acknowledged – and both men said they had found some common ground.
"It sounds as if we have some agreement on the fact that the world has to be part of the solution, not just the United States, and that we have to have a competitive industry if we're going to compete in the free world," Blankenship said.
Both men agreed that there should be more diversification in the economy of West Virginia, and said that carbon capture and sequestration (or storage) is “a joke.”
Turn to page 10A to see more photos from the debate.