RFK Jr.'s passion for environmental protection carries the day
Photo: Lawrence Pierce, West Virginia Gazette
People began filing into the University of Charleston's auditorium nearly two hours before the debate began. Charleston police, county sheriffs, state troopers and UC police lined the hallways and entrances. There were rumors of activists chaining themselves to trees and coal miners planning a huge rally. Television cameras were stationed along the walls and in nearly every corner of the auditorium.
It was the hottest ticket in town. All 950 seats in the main auditorium sold out in a few days, and an overflow room holding 2,000 more was expected to be fill. The biggest debate of the century was happening: Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship against Waterkeeper founder Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
The UC dean, Dr. Edwin H. Welch, moderated. He walked onstage 15 minutes before the debate began, telling the audience that "it does not happen very often in our society to have people who disagree so much come to speak together…we're going to try and recapture the art of argument tonight."
Welch introduced Blankenship first. Ushers separated miners and environmentalists between rows of UC students. Kennedy received 200 tickets for the event, as did Blankenship. UC distributed the rest. Miners cheered for Blankenship while enviros sat silent. Kennedy came on to huge cheers from enviros as miners kept folded hands in their laps.
Because the debate was being broadcast online and on television stations across West Virginia, the three men sat silently on stage. At exactly 6:30 p.m., Welch asked Blankenship the first question. (In case you missed the debate, listen to full audio courtesty West Virginia Public Broadcasting.)
Blankenship immediately turned on his folksy charm, while Kennedy used facts and figures to support his points. Blankenship spent the majority of the evening relying on fear: fear of politicians, fear of environmental regulations, fear of litigation, fear of China and India and jobs overseas. He pushed fear of the unknown: if regulations occur, miners would lose jobs. If we don't mine more coal, China and India will take our jobs away. Where Kennedy used facts, Blankenship used conjecture. Where Kennedy inspired, Blankenship wallowed.
I was sitting on an airplane out of Charleston this morning and two women walked past me down the aisle. I only heard a snippet of their conversation, but one said "They needed a more professional moderator, like a journalist or something. Kennedy just seemed to turn every answer into a speech, it was like he was not even listening to the question."
I thought about this comment the whole flight and realized the moderator really had nothing to do with it. Kennedy's responses sounded like a speech because he brought a real emotional investment to this debate. He wants West Virginia to be a cleaner, stronger state. He wants West Virginians to have good paying, clean and sustainable jobs. He wants to clean up pollution from this dirty fuel called coal and turn us towards a better, more profitable (not just financially) and sustainable future. I felt like Blankenship could have been talking about whether it was going to snow this weekend or how the prospects look for next year's Mountaineer Football. Kennedy had passion, and Blankenship—despite having the fate of thousands of workers and the future of West Virginia in his hands—was simply just there.
Facts and figures help win debates, and Kennedy was well equipped with both. But even if Blankenship arrived with consensus from every scientist and economist about the future of coal in West Virginia, without any sense of emotion and passion, he never had a chance.
Finally, for a more comical debate on mountaintop removal mining, check out Dr. Margaret Palmer's recent appearance on the Colbert Report. Dr. Palmer is lead author of the recent Science magazine article that concluded "scientific evidence of the severe environmental and human impacts from mountaintop mining is strong and irrefutable." The Dig Dug footage is priceless.