This eloquent documentary examines coal, wind, water, American democracy and rural spirit.
Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed over 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, buried 2,000 miles of streams, and contaminated many more, according to the film. Haney co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Rhodes.
Almost half of the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal, Haney tells us. One-third of that coal comes from West Virginia.
Activist Bobby Kennedy Jr. called
Coal River Mountain is the last barrier to toxic blasting dust and sludge containment areas, says Bo Webb of Naoma, WV. To save the mountain, local residents contact environmental lawyer, writer and activist Bobby Kennedy Jr.
Heavy metals taint water
Scientists measure high levels of heavy metals downstream from area mines. Lead, arsenic and selenium are found. “It’s ruined their wells, it’s ruined their springs,” says Dr. Ben Stout, professor of Biology at Wheeling Jesuit University.
High levels of cancer have occurred near contaminated wells. Jennifer Hall-Massey points out the homes of six neighbors who died of brain tumors in Prenter, WV.
Former Massey contractor Ed Wiley and his 11-year old granddaughter Kayla Taylor petition Governor Joe “Friend of Coal” Manchin to build a new school away from a coal silo. Four teachers and a student from the school have died of cancer, Wiley says.
Water supplies for millions threatened
“Mountaintop coal mining is literally threatening the water supplies of tens of millions of people,” says Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, senior scientist for the National Resources Defense Council. Millions of people get their water from the headwaters of the Cumberland Plateau bioregion.
“Coal is mean. Coal’s cruel and it kills,” says Maria Gunnoe of Bob White, Coal River Watershed.
It’s all legal, says Bill Raney, President of the West Virginia Coal Association. When Massey Energy completes mining in an area, it returns the rubble to the mountain top and “reconstructs” it.
Mountain reclamation falls short
Mountaintop removal destroys original topsoil and forests, says Jack Spadaro, former superintendent of the National Mine Health & Safety Academy. Now piles of rock are covered by grass. That contributes to dangerous flooding, he says.
Gunnoe says her neighborhood floods “every time it rains.” Flooding regularly threatens communities throughout the Coal River Valley. Some families have lived in the region for 200 years or more, says Webb.
Job cutting stats
If coal mining is so good for the economy, asks Kennedy, “then why is West Virginia one of the poorest states in the nation?”
Over the last 30 years, the coal industry has increased production by 140% in West Virginia, while cutting 40,000 jobs, says Joe Lovett, senior attorney for Appalachian Mountain Advocates. Strip mining allows the industry to save on labor.
Kennedy is cheered and booed when he speaks at a protest rally at the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Ecoactivists seem equally matched by employees of Massey Energy. Health and environmental issues are secondary to jobs, some believe.
Environmental protection upended
When The Clean Water Act was revised during the Bush administration, it legalized mountaintop removal for the first time.
“There are hundreds of thousands of violations of those permits by coal companies in this region every year,” says Lovett. “The state DEPs do nothing about them, or slap the companies on the wrist and actually protect them.”
Climate Ground Zero activists from all over the country arrive to stop Massey from mining Coal River Mountain. They treesit for nine days before a blizzard forces them down. They are arrested.
“Non-violent civil disobedience does work,” says protestor Joshua Graupera. “It’s a beautiful thing to be strong enough to not get violent, to not get angry.” Mug shots of the protestors are shown.
“To me they’re heroes of American democracy,” says Kennedy. You’ll be moved by the activists’ willingness to risk their safety and serve prison time.
Coal use drives climate change
“The mother of all environmental problems is the climate change issue,” says Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. “It’s very real, it’s happening today, and at the core of the problem is coal.”
Top environmental scientists overwhelmingly agree that greenhouse gases hasten climate change. “Mining and burning coal is the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide,” says Haney.
Don Blankenship, CEO of Massey Energy, tells a television journalist that global warming is “absolutely not” related to coal mining, but that the climate is “changing naturally.”
Between 2000 and 2006, Massey Energy committed more than 60,000 environmental violations and paid relatively minimal fines. During his 18 years as CEO, Massey’s compensation topped $190 million.
The coal industry spent $86 million, and coal utilities spent $1 billion, on political donations and lobbying in the last decade, says Haney.
In turn, billions of U.S. tax dollars go to the coal industry every year. Tax credits are granted for “clean coal” technology research, for mining waste clean-up and complying with pollution laws.
Can coal be “clean”?
“The coal industry continues to operate old, dirty plants,” says Speth, because “regulations on the old plants are less demanding than they are for the new plants.”
The Kenaw River power plant, built in 1953, was never retrofitted with pollution controls. In 2008, it released over 40 million pounds of pollutants including mercury, arsenic and lead.
Wind energy championed
“We need green jobs! We need all the jobs we can get!” Lorelei Scarbro, a local activist, tells the DEP protest rally. She supports a sustainable wind farm for Coal River Mountain.
A feasibility study shows that Coal River Wind would create more long-term, safe jobs than the coal industry. The county would gain $1.75 million annually from wind farm tax revenue, compared to $36,000 a year from mountaintop coal removal, she says. Wind would power 70,000 homes, says Scarbro.
Kennedy argues that coal energy costs 23.1 cents per kilowatt hour if you include expenditures for air and groundwater pollution, healthcare in Appalachia, and climate change. The cost of wind electricity is 7.9 cents per kilowatt hour, he says.
Canada leads the way
The government of Ontario, Canada is moving to decommission all its coal-fired power plants by 2014. It is replacing these with renewable energy.
Following criminal investigations, Massey Energy is now up for sale. Don Blankenship has retired.
Kennedy’s Waterkeeper Alliance has forced the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to make deep cuts in pollution. Yet coal companies continue to apply for mountaintop removal permits.
“You’re connected to coal whether you realize it or not,” says Gunnoe. “Everybody’s connected to this and everybody’s causing it and everybody’s allowing it.” (5 out of 5 stars)
If you like The Last Mountain, you might enjoy: Thrive.
The Last Mountain 2011 / PG / 1 hour, 35 min
Cast Overview: Robert Kennedy, Jr., Maria Gunnoe, Bo Webb, Jennifer Hall-Massey, Bill Raney, Ed Wiley, Chuck Nelson
Director: Bill Haney
Genre: Documentary, Ecoactivism, Nature