In 1971, when John Denver first sang about West Virginia’s natural beauty in “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” mountaintop-removal coal mining was not being practiced. Had it been, lyrics such as “miner’s lady, stranger to blue water” and “teardrops in my eye” would have had even greater resonance.
The new documentary “The Last Mountain,” catalogs the harmful affects of this violent extraction method. According to statistics cited by the director Bill Haney, mountaintop-removal mining has “destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2,000 miles of streams.” Evidently, the Bush-Cheney administration made this form of destruction possible in 2001; by changing two words in the Clean Water Act of 1972 the government enabled Big Coal lawfully to use the practice. The industry responded with gusto, and in the process showed how they prize corporate profits above the well being of the land, water and people.
While making this case, “The Last Mountain” also profiles local activists and concerned parties from outside West Virginia, who have fought to prevent the mining of Coal River Mountain, the final parcel—all 6,000 acres—in the state’s Coal River Valley. Yet Haney is not interested in crafting a nostalgic lament. This is advocacy cinema aimed at instigating change. That explains the sometimes incendiary language, one-sided argumentation and a reliance on anecdotal evidence that does not necessarily establish causal links. It also accounts for a lack of hesitation about addressing the political roots of the problem.
An experienced documentarian, Haney (“The Price of Sugar”) takes rhetorical advantage of twangy Bluegrass music, explosive (literally) imagery, sober-looking expert commentators and impassioned eco-crusaders. In the latter group he finds a smart, photogenic leading man in Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has championed the anti-mining cause in the Coal River Valley and is responsible for some of the movie’s most persuasive sequences.
As for villains, reality furnished the filmmakers with the nation’s third-largest coal company, Massey Energy, and its CEO, Don Blankenship, a black hat straight out of central casting. Massey’s zeal for mountaintop-removal mining, which requires blasting away with dynamite to reach the coal (and which costs less than other methods) has resulted in deforestation, flooding, toxic dust, water pollution and the depopulation of communities. The company is pilloried for its dismal safety record, innumerable environmental violations and reclamation efforts that conform to the letter but not the spirit of the law. Case in point: one of Massey’s spill-prone sludge impoundments sits above an elementary school.
A cluster of brain tumors among people living in one hamlet is attributed to drinking water fouled by coal operations. Coal’s role in hastening global climate change by creating greenhouse gases is also addressed; and pollution from coal-fired power plants is blamed for mercury in fish, as well as for autism and asthma. “The Last Mountain” challenges the industry’s blanket response to such charges, namely, that it is giving the men and women of West Virginia and elsewhere much-needed jobs while supplying vital energy to the nation. When Blankenship (“American labor is the real endangered species!”) and the head of the West Virginia Coal Association pit working class folk against environmental extremists, it smacks of trying to deflect attention from the harm being done.
While presenting this damning litany, Haney embarks on tangents that lionize RFK, Jr. His obvious sincerity and mastery of the issues notwithstanding, it is embarrassing to hear the music swell when Bobby recalls his upbringing in McLean, Virginia or how, as a budding green activist, he lobbied his uncle in the Oval Office. Still, Kennedy gives the movie as much substance as he does star power. At a rally outside the state EPA in Charleston, he declares, “This is a moral issue. God made these mountains and Don Blankenship takes them down.” And he offers a heady historical survey of legal concepts and precedents germane to mountaintop removal mining (beginning with the Code of Justinian).
Using sweeping if logical generalizations (“Corporations don’t want democracy they want profit”), Kennedy attacks the cozy relationship between the Big Coal and politicians. Massive campaign contributions are seen as responsible for shaping policy favorable to polluters and for lax oversight and enforcement by state and federal officials. Haney then singles out a self-proclaimed “friend of coal,” Democrat Joe Manchin, West Virginia’s governor from 2005 to 2010 and now a U.S. Senator.
Sadly, this indictment of corporate money’s role in our political system, along with much else in “The Last Mountain,” will not surprise most viewers. The hazards of mountaintop-removal mining may be massive and the impunity with which Big Coal has operated egregious, but the situation is not unique. You can quibble about tone and the details of the charges Haney levels. Yet you cannot deny what has transpired in Coal River Valley. At times, the movie feels like overkill and watching it can have a depressing, enervating affect. It is as though the futility of fighting back registers at a higher decibel than Haney intends, not least because it is ultimately unclear whether Coal River Mountain will be saved.
Moreover, despite the enormity of the problems and the justifiable outrage they provoke, it is incumbent upon Haney and anyone in the anti-coal camp to address some alternatives. How can we replace the electricity generated by coal—almost half the country’s requirements? What about the employment prospects of those toiling in the coal industry? These aren’t idle questions, no matter how Big Coal misuses them.
Regarding solutions, “The Last Mountain” offers one word: wind. Lorelei Scarbro, the granddaughter, daughter and widow of coal miners, lives in the shadow of Coal River Mountain and is spearheading efforts to build a 328-megawatt wind farm on the mountain’s ridges. She argues this would generate more long-term jobs and tax revenue than Massey’s plan, while providing electricity to 70,000 homes. To give this proposal more credibility, Haney unfurls statistics and rosy projections about the functionality and economic advantages of wind. And Kennedy pays a visit to Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Abbey School where Brother Joseph Byron, a Benedictine monk, proudly displays the turbine he says meets and average of 40 percent of the campus’ energy needs. Although the case sketched out for a wind alternative is far from convincing, it engenders hope.
A second cause for optimism is that the lessons of “The Last Mountain” can be constructively applied to other environmental debates where potentially momentous decisions have yet to be made. One example is whether “fracking”—high-volume hydraulic fracturing—should be permitted to unleash natural gas from shale deposits beneath eastern states such as New York (where there’s a current moratorium on the practice). Discussions about nuclear power, brought to the fore by events in Japan, can also be elevated by watching this film, particularly the tensions between corporate profitability and public safety.
A third reason “The Last Mountain” is not a total bummer are the committed individuals Haney celebrates. They include Kennedy, various local activists in the Coal River Valley and articulate members of the group Climate Ground Zero, many from outside the state, who mobilize against Massey’s impending assault on Coal River Mountain. Their passionate, reasoned approach is encouraging. As a bonus, they provide an ad hoc primer on nonviolent civil disobedience that even Mr. Burns from “The Simpsons,” if not Mr. Blankenship from Massey, would find inspirational.
The filmmakers’ dream is that our economic and ecological interests will someday dovetail in one or more energy solutions. That will remain a dream forever, since costs will always have to be paid and compromises made. But in order to get closer to the ideal—for decision-making to take place on a level playing field where dangers and trade-offs are clearly explained—we need principled, forward-looking people in all sectors of society who can help us achieve new possibilities.
I daresay Bill Haney should be counted as one. John Denver, who died in 1997, certainly was. As both men have pointed out, West Virginia is a place to which we all belong.