Keep Fighting: The Last Mountain (A Film Review)

“It feels like you're under attack,” activist and Vietnam veteran native Bo Webb says while describing the sound of a mountaintop being blasted near his home in West Virginia.  That’s an apt comparison because the coal industry’s destructive mining practice detonates enough explosives every week to match the power of the Hiroshima bomb.

There’s no question that when seen from high above in aerial images, mountaintop removal mining is ugly business.  Entire mountain ranges are beheaded and then capped with barren rock fields that resemble lunar landscapes, not the richly forested slopes that existed before.   But what Bill Haney’s scathing documentary The Last Mountain does so well is to descend from that mile-high picture to the shocking impacts of the coal industry on the very people it claims to support.

Mountaintop removal mining has already destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, but at the center of The Last Mountain is one particular as-yet untouched West Virginia peak: Coal River Mountain.  In the film, the coal industry is represented to villainous perfection by Massey Energy, and its notorious former CEO Don Blankenship, as the company descends upon Coal River Mountain to prep for blasting.

Contrast the footage of Blankenship at a pro-coal rally, surrounded by employees and adorned in as much red, white and blue as his frame will allow, with the fact that over the past 30 years, Massey’s production increased by 140% while eliminating 40,000 jobs.

Blankenship, who led Massey through its mountaintop removal expansion, also earned the reputation as a union-buster with little regard for worker safety.  West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of last year’s  disaster (in which 29 miners were killed – the worst in 40 years), was a Massey mine that had been cited numerous times for violations during the year leading up to the tragedy.  The company’s environmental track record is no better: in 2008 Massey paid the largest EPA fine ever for committing more than 60,000 violations.

Suffice to say, when Massey sets eyes upon your mountaintop, you get nervous.

The film lays out in disturbing detail the damage caused by the coal industry to Appalachia over the past decades: a million acres of forest destroyed, 2,000 miles of streams buried and 300 million gallons of toxic sludge spilled.  And it’s the communities closest to mining sites that bear the greatest burden.  In the film, residents describe harrowing stories of severe flash flooding in the hollows, debris tumbling down the mountainside into backyards and entire communities bought out and vacated to make room for expanded mining.

But the coal industry’s impacts to public health are perhaps the most damning.  In one particularly disturbing scene, a resident of a small town outside of Charleston, West Virginia stands in the middle of the street and points to the homes of six people, including her own brother, who have died because of brain tumors.  The connection between them?  All relied on the same local water supply contaminated with toxic metals injected into the ground by nearby coal mining operations.   Since The Last Mountain’s release, new research has documented higher rates of poverty, illness and early death in communities near mountaintop removal mining sites while evidence continues to pour in about the toll that coal emissions take on public health.

So knowing the havoc that mountaintop removal can wreak, could residents surrounding Coal River Mountain fight back?  Unfortunately, there’s no easy resolution.  Activists, both West Virginia natives and out-of-state protestors (including the prominently-featured Robert Kennedy, Jr.), demonstrate valiantly on the ground and even suspended from treetops.  But nearly one-and-a-half billion dollars in political contributions by the coal industry over the last decade have purchased a lot of clout.  The permit for Coal River Mountain’s destruction was granted before the Obama administration began attempts to regulate the practice, and there was little chance to keep Massey from blasting the mountain’s coal seams. (Although mining operations began in October 2009, the fight to save Coal River Mountain from complete destruction continues.)

Instead of leaving us with fatalistic shrugs, The Last Mountain proposes a much saner option that could still save Coal River Mountain and other peaks slated for destruction: wind power.  While extracting coal from the mountain would generate short-term money and temporary jobs, an economic study found that a wind farm sited along the mountain’s ridges could generate permanent electricity generation, jobs, and nearly $2 million in tax revenue every year.

But perhaps the greatest hope for ending mountaintop removal is seen in the satisfying montage of coal power plant stacks crashing to the ground during their demolition.  You can view those fallen stacks as revenge for the countless mountain trees felled in the pursuit of coal.  But more importantly, their destruction is compelling evidence that we are finally, however slowly, moving away from coal power because of the true cost to our mountains, our waters and our health.

The Last Mountain is in select theaters through September.

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