Kennedy says he first became aware of mountaintop removal as a teenager. His father, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy visited West Virginia during his 1968 presidential campaign.
“It’s an issue that my father was concerned about and spoke to me about when I was 14 years old,” Kennedy said. “Mountaintop removal in West Virginia is the worst human-made environmental catastrophe ever to happen in North America.”
Ten years ago, Kennedy, an environmental lawyer, founded the Waterkeeper Alliance. The organization works to protect waterways around the world.
He says he agreed to debate Blankenship because Massey Energy is the nation’s most environmentally irresponsible company.
There’s no way mountaintop removal should be allowed to continue, Kennedy says.
“It should be stopped immediately. It’s that cut and dry, of course. It would create a lot more jobs for West Virginia if that happened.”
Kennedy cited the declining number of coal miners, even while the industry extracts more coal than ever before. It’s mountaintop removal mines, he says, that are shrinking the workforce and sending bigger profits to out-of-state banks and companies.
“And those interests, what I call thieving interests, are liquidating the state of West Virginia for cash,” he said. “Why is it, my father asked this, why is it that the state with the richest natural resources in America is the second-poorest state in America?”
Kennedy says the “jobs versus the environment” debate is one the coal industry has been using since he was a child. He says it’s based on fake science, as well as phony economics.
“Don Blankenship claims that he’s enriching workers but he’s got the highest turnover in the industry in his workforce," he said.
“He’s got the most mountaintop removal and the highest turnover. He has a 25 percent annual turnover rate. You look at his mine sites, these people are coming from out of state. And they’re not sustainable jobs. Even by their own admissions, the jobs last five years to 15 years, tops. This is not something that’s enriching West Virginia.”
Kennedy says natural gas is a realistic energy source that could be powering the country in the short-term. Right now, waste water released when drilling for natural gas pollutes waterways, but Kennedy says the problem isn’t in the drilling but in the regulatory agencies.
“The problem with natural gas is not that the process has to be polluting,” he said. “The problem is that you have lax regulatory agencies that are not requiring the gas companies to purify their water at the well head.”
West Virginia has options other than coal and mountaintop removal, he says. He spoke about the state’s natural beauty, as well as West Virginia’s convenient proximity to major cities. Finding an alternative future requires some creativity, he says.
“If the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” he said. “The state government officials have just contented themselves with taking money from the coal industry and doing their bidding, making the easy excuse that ‘we have no alternative.’ I don’t accept that. West Virginia has a lot of other alternatives than cutting down its mountains."
Tune into West Virginia Public Radio Thursday, January 21 at 6 p.m. for live coverage of the debate.
Massey Energy did not return calls requesting an interview with Don Blankenship.