Don Blankenship and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the coal baron and the conservationist, are certain they could win over the world if only the public could see mountaintop removal mining through their eyes. On Thursday, they get their shot.
Blankenship, the outspoken chief executive of Massey Energy Co., goes toe-to-toe with Kennedy, the celebrity environmental attorney and member of the Kennedy political dynasty, in a debate that amounts to a prize fight for the hearts and minds of Americans who know next to nothing about coal.
Each man will step out of his customary setting — preaching to the converted about strip mining — and face off at the University of Charleston before a hand-picked crowd of 950. They hope the conversation will carry beyond U.S. coal country via the Internet.
Kennedy and Blankenship will spar over what's at stake if the U.S. government restricts the efficient, cost-effective practice of extracting coal by flat-topping mountains and filling valleys with excess material.
What's at stake is a way of life.
To some, mountaintop mining puts food on the table and mortgage checks in the mail. To others, it defaces majestic scenery, pollutes water and shatters the quiet country existence of people who've called the mountains home for generations.
"The more America knows about this issue, the more likely it is that their revulsion and disgust will pressure our political officials in D.C. and elsewhere to end the destruction of the Appalachians," Kennedy said as he prepared for the showdown with Blankenship. "People are beginning to find out about it, and when that happens, there's going to be a revolution."
Viewers and listeners "will hear exactly what we are saying and what we think, as opposed to the newspapers' interpretation," said Blankenship, whose Twitter campaign has 820 followers. "It's a certain win in that regard."
Blankenship rose from poverty in the Appalachian coalfields to become head of Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy, the region's largest coal operator with more than 6,000 employees.
Kennedy comes from the legendary U.S. political family that, despite its opposition to strip mining, has long been beloved by West Virginians for its interest in lifting generations from poverty.
For nearly a decade, environmentalists and the mining industry have fought over mountaintop removal in courtrooms and capitols. Over the past year, however, as the practice has gained scrutiny from regulators, policy makers and the public, 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.
While hearts and minds may be the prize for the debaters, Welch 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."
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