CHARLESTON, W.Va. — 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 got their shot.
Blankenship, the outspoken chief executive of Massey Energy Co., went toe-to-toe with Kennedy, the celebrity environmental attorney, in a debate that amounted to a prize fight for the hearts and minds of Americans who know next to nothing about coal.
Each man stepped out of his customary setting – preaching to the converted about Appalachian strip mining – and addressed a hand-picked crowd of 950 at the University of Charleston. They hope the conversation will carry beyond coal country via the Internet.
While Massey miner Jeff Johnson hopes that's the case, he doesn't know how far the debate will carry. "I think Don came out ahead, but it's not going to change any minds unfortunately," Johnson said.
The debate was all about ways 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 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.
U.S. energy policy needs to allow for producing lots of energy at low cost, environmental concern and prudent management of the resource, Blankenship said.
Kennedy countered that surface mining has helped keep West Virginia among the poorest states in the country.
"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."
After 90 minutes of debate, both said they had found some common ground, but not much.
"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.
But Kennedy insisted the environment must be safeguarded, declaring "100 percent of the time, good environmental policy is identical to good economic policy."
Before the event began, small groups stood in the drizzle in front of the university auditorium and gymnasium, talking with like-minded people rather than demonstrating or arguing.
James McGuinness of Rock Creek said the night's 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."
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."
Blankenship rose from poverty in the Appalachian coalfields to become head of Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy, the region's largest coal operator with more than 6,000 employees.
Kennedy comes from a legendary political family that, despite its opposition to strip mining, has long been beloved by West Virginians for its interest in lifting generations from poverty.
While hearts and minds may be the prize for the debaters, University President Ed Welch who was moderating the debate 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.
Associated Press Writer Vicki Smith in Morgantown contributed to this story.