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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – The real audience for the debate between coal baron Don Blankenship and conservationist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. was not the hundreds who packed the audience at the University of Charleston.
Those people – coal miners and environmentalists, politicians and local residents – heard nothing new in Kennedy’s denunciation of mountaintop removal mining nor in Blankenship’s defense of the practice.
The real audience extends far beyond West Virginia and central Appalachia; it’s the millions of Americans who don’t know a strip mine from a slurry impoundment, but whose anger or acceptance of mountaintop mining could tip the political balance one way or the other.
A hand-picked crowd of 950 heard the outspoken Massey Energy chief and the environmental lawyer from America’s most famous political clan debate for about 90 minutes Thursday night. Hundreds more watched on closed-circuit TV in a campus gym.
The debate over mountaintop mining has raged in West Virginia for years. But this was a chance to reach millions of unconverted Americans via the Internet and many more through the dozens of media outlets present – including three documentary film crews.
“I think Don came out ahead, but it’s not going to change any minds, unfortunately,” Massey Energy miner Jeff Johnson said.
Both men made their cases succinctly, and lightly traded verbal jabs, accusing the other of being fuzzy on facts or unfair in rhetoric.
For Blankenship, mountaintop mining puts food on the table and mortgage checks in the mail. For Kennedy, it defaces majestic scenery, pollutes water and shatters the quiet country existence of people who’ve called the mountains home for generations.
“The two primary concerns have to be the security of the country and improving the quality of life throughout the country and the world,” Blankenship said.
Poverty was a formative experience for Blankenship, who has memories of trudging to an outhouse on frigid winter nights.
“If you haven’t had those experiences, you probably don’t have the empathy with people going through that even today in West Virginia,” said Blankenship, who rose to head Richmond, Va.-based Massey, the region’s largest coal operator.
Kennedy countered that surface mining has helped keep West Virginia among the poorest states.
“What we’re fighting here is not just the destruction – the massive and worst destruction of our environment,” Kennedy said.
For nearly a decade, environmentalists and the mining industry have fought over mountaintop removal. Over the past year, however, the fight has become more fierce.
There have been nearly 100 arrests at 20 protests, most involving trespassing. Miners respond to environmentalists’ rallies with sign-toting hecklers and lines of coal trucks blasting air horns.
Among those who watched the debate, James McGuinness of Rock Creek said the event could be a tipping point for the movement against mountaintop removal mining.
“More and more politicians are starting to understand,” he said. “There are miners against mountaintop removal mining. There are a lot more people who are against it now.”
But Massey surface miner Chuck Kelley said it’s time for the industry to fight back.
“We’ve sat on our hands for so long,” he said. “We have to get out and take care of ourselves.”
While America’s hearts and minds may be the prize for the debaters, University President Ed Welch – the night’s moderator – said there’s also something at stake for society: the ability to have a serious, civil conversation about a contentious issue.
“If we can’t have intelligent discourse about the most important issues we face, where are we?” he said. “If we can help people understand it’s a hard issue, that’s a major step forward.”
Associated Press Writer Vicki Smith in Morgantown contributed to this story.