Ordinary Citizens Fight Big Coal In “The Last Mountain”
“Heroes of American Democracy.” That is how Robert F. Kennedy Jr. describes the main players in the struggle against Big Coal in The Last Mountain, which has just been released on DVD. Featuring citizen activists fighting for clean air and water against entrenched interests and corporate dollars, the documentary combines backstory, statistics, and human interest to explain more fully the narrative of where our electricity comes from.
Setting the stage is information outlining how coal plays a part in the American energy equation:
- Almost one-half of the electricity in the United States comes from burning coal
- 16 pounds of coal are burned daily for every man, woman, and child in the United States
- One third of the coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia
Juxtaposed to this data is footage of ordinary people holding signs that read, “Stop Blasting: Save the Kids.” They are residents of Coal River Valley, West Virginia. Their goal is to protect Coal River Mountain, home to biologically diverse forests and their way of life. “People have had enough and they’re standing up to the coal companies,” says one demonstrator.
With the hopes of evening the odds in their battle, the West Virginia citizens reached out to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—an environmental lawyer with established creds. The film shows him as a 10-year-old, visiting his uncle John in the White House to discuss his concerns about the environment. Over forty years later, in the fall of 2009, he spoke to President Obama about the liabilities of mountain top coal mining.
Kennedy appears at pivotal moments throughout the film. He is the father of three children with asthma caused by “ozone and particulates from burning coal illegally.” Giving a brief history lesson, Kennedy discusses how regulations that were supposed to be in effect eighteen years ago were transformed when George W. Bush abolished the “New Source rule.” With a nod to ongoing arguments about the economy versus health priorities, Kennedy explains that up until the 1870s, if a factory in America emitted smoke that permeated your house, you had the right to shut them down. However, the laws were eroded by the Industrial Revolution, in order to facilitate the growth of manufacturing. Kennedy says flatly, “So we will allow industry to pollute.”
Walking through a destroyed mountaintop, Kennedy comments, “If the American people could see it, there would be a revolution in this country.” When directly confronting a coal company representative on how a demolished mountaintop has been reconstructed, Kennedy points out, “This is supposed to be a forest.” Reacting to the talking points response he receives, he asks sardonically, “How many lies do you have to tell to make this whole fiction work?”
There is ample footage that demonstrates exactly what transpires in order to extract
coal from the Appalachian Mountains. First, the trees are cut down. Then the mountains are blasted. Boulders tumble down to the homes in the valley below, filled with silica dust (this contributes to the disease silicosis). With 2500 tons of explosives detonated daily, the mountains are reduced to rubble. Maria Gunnoe, a mother who comes from two generations of coal miners, conveys, “You feel like you’re under attack.” It happens several times a day as 800 to 900 feet are taken off a mountain and dumped in the valley. Gunnoe, who lives in Boone County, West Virginia, discusses how the persistent and severe flooding on her land pushed her to become proactive. A coal company engineer defends the rainfall flooding as, “Not our fault.” Rather, he attributes it to, “An act of God.” Gunnoe, previously a waitress, now works full time for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), and is a powerful presence in the movie. Her concerns embrace not just those of ecological balance, but also the potential loss of Appalachian culture and heritage.
Those fighting tooth and nail to halt mountaintop removal have deep roots in the area. Bo Webb’s father was a coal miner. His family’s property on the banks of Coal River was homesteaded in the 1830s by previous generations. Destruction of the mountain ridge above his house pushed Webb to co-found the grassroots organization Mountain Justice Summer. Mountain removal mining has destroyed 500 Appalachian Mountains. This translates into one million acres of decimated forest and 2,000 miles of buried streams—with contamination of thousands of additional miles. The result is heavy metals in both well waters and springs.
Jennifer Hall-Massey, a resident of Prenter, West Virginia, joined with 264 neighbors to sue nine coal companies on the grounds that they were responsible for the contamination of the local water supplies. Their small enclave has witnessed a cluster of brain tumors, with fatalities including Hall-Massey’s 29-year-old brother. Hall-Massey points out that the national average for brain tumors is one in 100,000.
The Bruce Mansfield power plant, one of the country’s largest coal-fired facilities, is located a few miles from Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The plant has blanketed the town with toxic fly ash. There are eight children in the area with autism, including Susan Bird’s son. She has become part of the environmental group Penn Future to amplify her concerns. She asks ruefully, “As a parent, you sit there and wonder, did I do this? You know, if I lived somewhere else would he have been healthier?” Currently, researchers have undertaken a ten-year study on the relationship between autism and air borne pollutants.
The documentary makes it clear that the people pushing back are up against very heavy hitters. This includes representatives from both political parties, lobbyists for varied interests, as well as the coal industry. In 2004, George W. Bush, who received enormous contributions from the coal sector was quoted as saying of his re-election, “This is a coal-fired victory.”
Massey Energy (which was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011), and its CEO (through 2010) Don Blankenship, serve as the major representatives of the coal industry’s point of view. The largest coal company in West Virginia, Massey does more mountain top removal mining than any other company in the country. Their track record includes evicting the unions from their mines and replacing jobs with mechanization. Over the past thirty years, that move has increased production by 140 percent while shedding 40,000 jobs. Massey paid the largest fine in EPA history (20 million dollars) for over 60,000 violations. In 2010, twenty-nine Massey miners died in the worst American mine disaster since 1970. The company came under investigation later that year. During his eighteen-year tenure as CEO, Blankenship’s compensation was in excess of 190 million dollars.
Another one-time Massey employee, with a very different outlook, is Ed Wiley—who served as a contractor to the company. Little did he know that he would go head to head with his former boss. His mission was to fight for the health of his granddaughter and her classmates, who attended elementary school adjacent to a Massey industrial coal processing plant. The children and teachers were subjected to air borne coal dust sucked into the school’s ventilation system. Wiley describes the situation as “a hornets nest sitting over the school.” With an elevated rate of cancers and respiratory ailment in evidence, he becomes determined to have the school resituated. He marches with signs asking, “Massey: Why are you poisoning our kids?” He confronts then governor Joe Manchin, who self-identifies as a “friend of coal.” Pointing to his granddaughter Wiley instructs, “This is not an environmental issue, this is a little human being.” Along with Bo Webb and other members of the community, the town finally gets a new school—with Massey footing 20 percent of the bill.
Facts disseminated on screen point to the manifest impact of coal on health. Each year, emissions from coal-fired plants contribute to:
- More than 10 million asthma attacks
- Brain damage in up to 600,000 newborn children
- More than 43,000 premature deaths
Burning coal is the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide. There are 600 coal-fired plants across the United States; their emissions cover the entire country. There are 600 ash ponds nationwide filled with 150 billion gallons of toxic sludge.
By focusing on the stories of those whose physical well being and families have been directly affected, The Last Mountain shows, in the words of director Bill Haney, “the power of ordinary citizens to remake the future when they have the determination and courage to do so.”
This article originally appeared on the website Moms Clean Air Force.