A leading critic of mountaintop removal has turned down United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts' challenge to publicly debate the issue.
Cindy Rank, mining chairwoman for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said Thursday the conservancy's board thought a debate is not the best forum to further "civilized discussion" of the issue.
"A debate between UMWA and WVHC at this time would only further the incorrect notion that this is an issue of coal miners versus regulators," Rank wrote in a letter to Roberts.
Rank said her organization "filed legal action against state and federal regulatory agencies because those agencies have permitted the coal industry to use extreme mining methods that we believe violate both the letter and spirit of federal and state mining laws.
"These extreme mining methods have in turn allowed industry to create a situation where workers are forced to depend on overly destructive mining practices for their jobs and where coalfield communities and the environment that supports and sustains them are being destroyed."
Last week, Roberts challenge Rank to debate "the importance of coal mining to West Virginia's economy."
"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."
Doug Gibson, a spokesman for the mine workers, said it was unfortunate that Rank declined.
"We felt there could be a good exchange of ideas between two interested parties," Gibson said. "But we respect Ms. Rank's right to decline."
Rank suggested the conservancy and the UMW work together to free up more federal money - in taxes on the coal industry - for cleaning up abandoned mines.
"Properly spent, those monies would provide needed cleanup of hundreds of problematic abandoned mine sites and at the same time, provide well-paying jobs for at least some of the miners who may lose or have already lost their jobs - whether due to mechanization, market conditions, scaled-back permits or the inevitable depletion of coal reserves in [West Virginia]," Rank said.
Rank offered to meet informally with Roberts to discuss mining issues.