United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts on Thursday challenged one of the state's leading mountaintop removal critics to a public debate.Roberts said he wants to debate "the importance of coal mining to West Virginia's economy" with Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy."My reason for wanting to debate Ms. Rank is not mean-spirited," Roberts said in a news release. "I just feel that her ideas are one-sided and are clouding the public discussion."The conservancy is one of the plaintiffs in a federal court lawsuit that seeks to curb mountaintop removal mining.
In early March, the lawsuit prompted Chief U.S. District Judge Charles Haden II to issue a preliminary injunction that halted permits for Arch Coal Inc. to expand its Dal-Tex mountaintop removal operation in Logan County. Nearly 400 UMW members could lose their jobs without the permits.Roberts said he is open to offers from the state media to host and broadcast the debate."An open debate between two concerned parties would certainly go a long way toward helping the state determine which direction it wants to proceed," Roberts said."Some in the environmental community appear to believe that West Virginia would simply be better off without coal mining," Roberts said. "They are sorely mistaken."Rank said Thursday she would consider debating Roberts, but wasn't sure that a public debate would be the best forum to discuss the UMW's differences with environmentalists."Certainly the conservancy has not avoided discussing these issues with anyone, including the mine workers," Rank said.Rank added that other issues, including environmental impacts of mining, tax breaks for coal companies "and all the positives and liabilities" should be included in any such debate.In addition to the debate challenge, Roberts announced Thursday that the UMW would soon launch "Challenge West Virginia," an advertising campaign intended to stimulate discussion about mining's economic benefits."There is currently a movement in West Virginia to raise awareness about the environmental consequences of certain types of coal mining," Roberts said. "The UMWA is on record in support of finding ways to mine coal that do not harm the environment or the communities where people live and work."But I also believe there are some in West Virginia who are using the mountaintop mining issue to push a much broader agenda - including the complete shutdown of the state's coal industry," Roberts said. To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., call 348-1702.