Mountaintop Removal Redux: Bobby vs. Blankenship II

In a reprise of the debate between NRDC's Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Massey Coal CEO Don Blankenship over mountaintop removal coal mining, the Washington newspaper The Hill published dueling pieces by both adversaries in today's edition.  Back in January, these two squared off face-to-face in a debate held in Charleston, West Virginia.  Now, their opinion pieces on the same controversial topic appear side-by-side in the paper.

(Don Blankenship, seated left, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., on right, at WV debate in January.  Photo by Andrea Lai/Climate Ground Zero)

Blankenship: MTR is Good

The article by Mr. Blankenship, the no-holds-barred head of the nation's fourth-largest coal mining company, is entitled: "Coal mining continues legacy of affordable energy, job source in an era of dubious ‘green’ alternatives".  Blankenship dives right in by attacking his nemesis, Bobby Kennedy, writing:  "In 1960, West Virginians helped catapult John F. Kennedy into the White House.  Fifty years later, his nephew has returned the favor with an agenda shared by environmental elitists in Washington that would accomplish nothing less than the economic cleansing of Appalachia."

Blankenship trots out the tired myth that "our coal economy depends on surface mining" and heralds strip mining as "the safest way to mine coal."  He conveniently sidesteps the fact that the most extreme strip mining -- mountaintop removal -- actually stands in the way of jobs because it's heavy reliance on mechanization essentially removes the miner from the mining.  Traditional underground mining requires far more miners, for far longer, than the economically expedient and more environmentally destructive decapitation of mountaintops and the dumping of mining waste into Appalachian streams.  As for the safety and welfare of people, he conveniently overlooks the thousands of citizens in the Appalachian coalfields who suffer all manner of health risks and dangers at the hands of Massey's "scorched earth" approach to mining -- blasting on the mountain, deadly coal dust in the air, poisoned drinking water, overloaded coal trucks speeding down narrow, twisting roads, etc.

As might be expected from a man desperate to cling to the profits of a declining dirty industry and one who seemingly is in denial about the fact that fossil fuels are, after all, a finite resource,  Blankenship portrays himself the victim of a "political crusade against coal [that] will devastate Appalachia’s economy."  Naturally, it's not Massey's profits he's worried about at all, it's the fact that "the first casualties will be thousands upon thousands of good-paying jobs with good benefits.  Jobs might not matter on the beaches of Hyannis Port, Mass., but they do in the hollows of West Virginia."

Kennedy: MTR is Greed

Bobby Kennedy, senior counsel for NRDC, is no wallflower himself.  His counterpoint is entitled, "Poverty and tyranny central to immoral practice of mountain destruction, water and air poisoning".  He sets up his argument by noting that the Appalachian forest is "the oldest and richest ecosystem north of the equator, having survived the Pleistocene ice era and provided the seed stock that reforested the continent."  The kicker:  "Now the Massey Energy coal company, the largest practitioner of mountaintop removal, and a few corporate cronies are accomplishing what the Pleistocene could not: flattening Appalachia’s mountains, obliterating those ancient forests and historic landscapes." 

Not surprisingly, Mr. Kennedy's take on mountaintop removal is decidedly different than Blankenship's:  "Using mammoth machines designed to replace human workers, and explosives with the power of a Hiroshima bomb each week, coal companies have already flattened 1.4 million acres, buried nearly 2,000 miles of streams and blown up 500 of America’s oldest mountains," Kennedy explains.

Kennedy strongly disputes industry's claim that mountaintop removal brings prosperity to the region, calling it a dirty lie.  "To the contrary," Kennedy writes, "the out-of-state companies and Wall Street banks that control Appalachian coal are liquidating the resources of the region while impoverishing its residents." 

He cites the example of West Virginia -- "ground zero for the plundering of Appalachia" -- as a state blessed with some of the country’s richest natural resources yet ranked as the second poorest state in the country.  "Coalfield counties throughout the region have some of the highest poverty levels in the nation," Kennedy points out.  He charges that mountaintop removal "is incompatible with either economic development or human habitation" and identifies once-thriving communities reduced by rapacious mining to "ghost towns dotting the coalfields."  Whereas Blankenship accuses environmentalists of "economic cleansing" in Appalachia, presumably the result of regulations constricting mining operations, Kennedy accuses coal companies of engaging in "a deliberate policy of buying and closing coal towns and paying the residents to leave.  Then, after a few short years of production, the companies leave too, abandoning depopulated hollows and barren moonscapes that are useless for economic development or functioning ecosystems."

Through Massey’s brand of mountaintop removal, Kennedy says Blankenship has “caused more suffering to more people in Appalachia than any other human being.”  Kennedy calls this kind of mining a moral crime, as well as a "criminal enterprise", citing Massey's record-breaking $20 million fine from EPA for tens of thousands of Clean Water Act violations.  "Thanks to the coal industry," writes Kennedy, "every waterway in central Appalachia is now contaminated with dangerous levels of heavy metals like mercury," as well "deadly chemicals like arsenic and selenium illegally dumped into Appalachia’s waterways."

According to Kennedy, mountaintop removal is only profitable due to huge public subsidies.  For instance, he cites a study on the impact of coal on Kentucky’s state budget.  It concluded that the industry generated roughly $528 million in tax revenues in 2006.  "However," Kennedy notes, "placating King Coal cost the Bluegrass State $642 million to maintain thousands of miles of coal roads and other public subsidies – a net loss of $115 million annually."  (By the way, that study did not even consider the public health consequences of mining or its many other externalized costs.)  Aside from the economic costs of coal, Kennedy cites research on the alarming health costs of people who live in the coalfields, which exceed the economic contributions of the entire mining industry by up to $50 million annually. 

Kennedy also points out that the myriad ills of mountaintop removal are in no way justified when you consider that only about 5 percent of the nation’s electric power comes from this form of mining.  He concludes:

"It’s not a good thing for Appalachia, America, or democracy when corporations own the landscape and drive people off the land.  West Virginians, Virginians, Kentuckians and Tennesseans are proud of their mountain heritage and they dearly love the hills and hollows.  A robust majority want to see mountaintop removal ended.  Even West Virginia’s senior senator, Robert Byrd, acknowledges the growing consensus against this extreme strip mining.  They know that Appalachia at long last must move toward a diversified economy that will provide sustainable jobs and relieve the state of boom-bust cycles that spiral always toward poverty and tyranny."

(One of the "ghost towns" mentioned by Kennedy: Lindytown, WV)