The debate about surface mining has heated up in the US, with environmentalists from West Virginia’s Appalachia region striking a controversial public debate with coal industry supporters.

High-profile environmentalist and president of the Waterkeeper Alliance Robert Kennedy Jr spoke out against the practice used by coal company Massey Energy in a debate with CEO Don Blankenship.

Kennedy said surface mining, where the tops of mountains are removed to allow the mining of coal, had a severe environmental impact.

Kennedy also claimed that the health of residents in the mine’s region had also been affected and called for a new focus on renewable power projects to help ease demand for coal.

“The coal industry shifts the burden of cleaning up after itself to the people, along with health problems and global warming, these costs are passed onto the public,” Kennedy said.

“West Virginia would be better served by working to diversify and create renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power.”

Blankenship, however, said coal was the hot-bed of American life, and should be remembered for what it has historically offered the nation – an income and a lifestyle.

“Coal made the industrial revolution possible, it has helped our country win wars,” Blankenship was quoted as saying in the Williansom Daily News.

“Coal funds our counties and our State, we provide more to our communities than we take away.”

Blankenship said his company has considered developing wind farms, but the option was not found to be profitable.