During a visit to Charleston on Thursday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. harshly criticized mountaintop removal coal mining.
Kennedy called the coal industry practice "the worst example of what human beings can do to their environment when they behave irresponsibly."
"Practices that destroy whole mountain ranges ... these types of practices ultimately are irresponsible," said Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the son of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and a nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy.
In a speech to the West Virginia Conference on the Environment, Kennedy made several passing references to coal's environmental abuses and to the industry's control over West Virginia politics.
"We can't cut down the mountains to get at the coal," he said during his speech. "There are other ways we can do it."
Just after the speech, during a brief news conference, several reporters peppered Kennedy with questions that were critical of his remarks about coal. Kennedy responded with more pointed attacks on mountaintop removal.
"I believe that West Virginia is caught by a mentality that says that all that we have in this state is coal," Kennedy said.
"This state has some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country," he said. "But if you stay in a mentality that the only way you can make money is by plowing down the mountainsides, then that's what's going to happen.
"This is mining in its worst sense, liquidizing an asset for short-term cash and destroying a long-term asset of the community," he said.
"Fifty years ago, when it was actually providing significant amounts of jobs, there was more of a justification for it," Kennedy said. "But that was a more gentle type of mining back then."
Kennedy delivered the keynote address Thursday morning in the opening day of the environmental conference.
The two-day event is sponsored each year by the West Virginia Environmental Institute. The nonprofit organization has held the event for 17 years in an effort to bring together industry officials, citizens, regulators and others with an interest in environmental policy.
The event continues today at the student union at the University of Charleston.
Kennedy is chief prosecutor for The Riverkeeper, a nationwide organization that files lawsuits to stop rivers and streams from being polluted.
He is also a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council and runs an environmental law clinic at Pace University.
During his speech Thursday, Kennedy also criticized moves by Congress and the Bush administration to give states more authority to handle environmental law enforcement.
"The real outcome will not be local control," he said. "It will be corporate control, because these large corporations so easily control the local political landscape."
Kennedy also said that he vigorously opposes Bush's plans to allow oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
"This is the last, true, pristine wilderness in America," he said. "We've let industry into every conceivable part of our country. We ought to be able to say to our children that we left one place alone."
In general, Kennedy urged governments, companies and the public to consider the environmental consequences when figuring the costs of their actions.
"It's always going to be more effective to look before we leap," he said. "What polluters do is evade the free market. They make themselves rich by making the rest of us poor."
Kennedy said he strongly supports the rights of citizens to file lawsuits to enforce environmental laws when government regulators won't do their jobs.
"If there is a corporation polluting in your back yard, and the government won't do anything about it, you have the right to step into the shoes of the United States attorney and go into court to enforce the law," Kennedy said.
Kennedy has helped to successfully push for federal regulators to force General Electric to dredge the Hudson River to clean up toxic PCBs that pollute the river bottom, the water and the fish.
The situation is similar to that facing the Kanawha River and several tributaries. Years of pollution by Monsanto Co. and other chemical factories have left unhealthy amounts of toxic dioxin in the river sediment. Federal officials have dodged efforts to force a cleanup here.
"What GE did is what all polluters do - they used chemical ingenuity and political clout to avoid paying the true cost of bringing their product to market," Kennedy said.
"Whether he's rich or poor, or black of white, every child in the city of Charleston has the right to go down to this river, pull out a fish, take it home and feed his family with the comfort that it's safe," he said.
"And it's the same with the Coal River or the Gauley River, or any of your other wonderful rivers," Kennedy said. "That right has been taken away from most of the people of this state."
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.