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Robert F. Kennedy Jr. takes on mountaintop mining magnate Don Blankenship

Grist Magazine-  by David Roberts 22 Jan 2010 2:47 AM

On Thursday the University of Charleston in West Virginia hosted a debate between Don Blankenship, CEO of mountaintop-removal mining firm Massey Energy Co., and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., environmental lawyer and founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance. I kept up a running play-by-play that can be accessed by scrolling back through my Twitter feed, but I didn’t take notes, so this is from memory and I won’t be using direct quotes.

The mystery to me going in was why Blankenship agreed to it. What possible incentive is there for a corporate CEO to put himself in a risky situation, publicly defending a widely reviled product? What’s the upside? Why not just buy some ads or hire more lobbyists?

Having watched the debate, I’m more mystified than ever. If that was supposed to be damage control, I’d hate to see damage. Blankenship had every advantage, with a friendly hometown crowd eager to applaud him and a moderator who helpfully read off pro-coal facts during commercial breaks, but he was painfully and obviously outmatched by Kennedy. I guess it’s easy to get over-confident when you’ve effectively purchased a state government and broken the law with impunity for years.

He didn’t seem even cursorily prepared. Kennedy reeled off fact after fact about declining mining employment in WV, the age of Appalachian ecosystems and the impossibility of recovering them after MTR mining damage, the enormous health and economic impacts of coal on Appalachia, the size of Chinese investments in clean energy, the number of Clean Water Act violations from Massey, and on and on and on. Every fact was geared toward a plea to West Virginians: look, this man is making himself rich by making you poor. He’s sapping your state of jobs, income, health, and a future.

In response Blankenship had nothing but ressentiment and nativism. Over and over he dismissed Kennedy’s facts as “rhetoric” and “just false” claims that “you can find on the internet,” but not once did he refute or even convincingly contest a particular claim. He asked the audience to dismiss them based purely on crude stereotypes about out-of-state environmentalists.

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