The sad controversy over ‘Coal Country’

July 9, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.


Makers of the film “Coal Country” interview coal industry official Randall Maggard in this courtesy photo.

It will be pretty sad if Mari-Lynn Evans and crew don’t find another theater in the Kanawha Valley willing to host the world premiere of their new film, “Coal Country.”

And that’s not just because it will be a surrender to solving complicated issues by thuggery (or at least fear of thuggery — we don’t know exactly what was or wasn’t planned by coal industry lobbyists or groups of miners), rather than by reasoned discussion, education and sound public policy debates.

Maybe Coal Tattoo is fighting a losing battle trying to encourage everyone to try to find some common ground. But when I watched the movie at home the other other night (Mari-Lynn was kind enough to send me an advance copy), I found plenty to encourage me.

Sure, the movie has a point of view — that mountaintop removal is not good, and a mono-economy focused on coal is also not so good.  Writing for The Huffington Post, Jeff Biggers proclaimed:

Coal Country shines the light on one of the darkest human rights and environmental violations overseen by federal and state regulators in our times. Through a series of moving portraits of coalfield residents, the film chronicles the extraordinary and largely overlooked toll of coal mining on the lives of Appalachian residents.

But Jeff also observed:

If anything, Coal Country goes out of its way to include the views and voices of the Big Coal lobby and its executives, engineers and miners.

Personally, I also found it to be fairly balanced, and to offer some interesting scenes where folks on completely opposite sites of the mountaintop removal issue were saying pretty similar things about the future of the coal industry.

I have to admit, though, that one of my favorite scenes was when the film compared Sen. Jay Rockefeller’s current statements — coal is all good, basically — with these comment from his 1972 gubernatorial campaign:

We know that strip mining is tearing up the beauty of our state. We know that strip mining is not a good economic future for West Virginia and not a good economic future for our children. And we know that, whatever advantage it has now, the damage that it leave is a permanent damage. 

Of course, Rockefeller lost that election, and as Ken Hechler explains in the film, he soon changed his position on strip mining.

Sure, “Coal Country” includes lots of familiar faces and stories, like activist Judy Bonds, who is featured in this trailer:

The film also includes an unfortunate scene where Judy waves around the gun she keeps in the house in case the coal miners show up.  But Judy recovers well from that, by citing the fantastic quote from legendary journalist Upton Sinclair in describing why folks who work in the coal industry don’t get why their neighbors are so upset about mountaintop removal:

“It is hard to get a man to understand something when his paycheck demands him not to understand.” 


One of the most compelling characters in the film is former miner Chuck Nelson, above, who, as Jeff Biggers described in the Huffington Post review:

… Walks viewers through the union-busting tactics of out-of-state coal companies and mountaintop removal operations, and the rarely noticed destruction of real estate values for local coalfield residences due to coal dust and environmental ruin. Mountaintop removal, ultimately, he points out, “is not so cheap for people who have to live under these sites.

But I was also taken by Argus Energy environmental manager Randall Maggard, who went beyond the standard coal industry tour (though he probably unintentionally admitted that mine companies really haven’t figured out how to regrow hardwood forests on mountaintop removal sites yet).

Gazette writer Doug Imbrogno described Maggard’s appearance in the film this way:

A heartfelt defense of such mining comes by way of Boone County mine operator Randall Maggard, who defends his company’s work as responsible employment that feeds families and offers good-paying work in terribly depressed communities.

Interestingly, Maggard admits that the coal industry doesn’t seem to be able to win over the general public on mountaintop removal:

I think the protesters are kicking our butts right now. They’ve got the media on their side and everything else and there doesn’t seem to be any way we can slow them down.

And, Maggard comes off more human than most films on coal allow industry types to appear, when he explains that he tries to do what he thinks is right and doesn’t like it much when his kids hear at school that strip mining isn’t so good:

I wish the public would just try their best to look at things from an objective point of view and try to get both sides of it. We feel like we’re being targeted, the mining companies and the employees themselves … I try to do what’s right. I mean when your kid comes home from school and says Daddy, my teacher wants me to write a paper, a letter opposing mountaintop removal mining, I said, well, why don’t you just go ahead and tell them to write a letter trying to put me out of a job.

OK — maybe it sounds hokey. And maybe you might disagree with Maggard’s view on mining. But come on … no father wants his kids thinking he’s a bad guy.

And most coal miners aren’t bad guys, at least the ones I’ve gotten to know. And it’s hardly their fault that the political leaders of our region and our nation haven’t done much to give them other opportunities for making a living and raising their families.

But the most telling part of the film to me was when environmental lawyer Joe Lovett made these comments:

I want to stress that I’m not saying that all miners should be thrown out of work tomorrow and all power plants should be shut down. But that we need to start making a transition away from burning coal.  I think the coal industry fears that, and knows that it’s coming and is fighting any way it can.

And then Gene Kitts, vice president for engineering at International Coal Group said this:

We’re not opposed to alternative energy. But can it in the near term replace 50 percent of the source of electrical energy. I think the answer to that is no. But as other technologies gain some cost competitive characteristics, then the economy will naturally migrate toward those.

Gene and Joe will both be mad at me for saying this — but are they really that incredibly far apart? No, they certainly don’t see mountaintop removal from the same eyes. But the future for coal that they describe isn’t really that different.

Yesterday on Twitter,  Gene Tweeted  this comment:

I’m curious – Can WV have “green” jobs and coal mining jobs? Why is a “transition” necessary?

Sorry, Gene, but what you talked about in the movie is just that, a transition.  I pointed Gene toward a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, Coal Power in a Warming World. Among other things, the report acknowledges the likely continued use of coal in the United States and other countries. But, it also sets a high bar for what kind of coal we’re talking about.

For example, UCS says we should stop building coal-fired power plants that don’t include carbon capture and storage. And we should accelerate research, development and deployment of that technology.

Finally, the report adds, if coal is going to be burned using CCS, we must also address the other impacts from this fuel:

Adopt statutes and stronger regulations that will reduce the environmental and societal costs of coal use throughout the fuel cycle. Our use of
coal, from mining through waste disposal, has serious impacts on the safety and health of both humans and our environment. Policies are needed
to reduce these impacts and place coal on a more level playing field with low-carbon alternatives. This would include a ban on mountaintop removal
mining and tougher standards for mercury emissions, mine safety, and waste disposal. Any federal policy that promotes coal use, including ongoing or expanded CCS subsidies, must be accompanied by such measures.

West Virginians — and residents of coalfield communities all across Appalachia — need to be talking with each other about these issues and this transition.  Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a single political leader who wants to help make that conversation possible. If there were, the state would open up the Cultural Center Theater Saturday night and endorse the showing of this film.

Maybe Gov. Joe Manchin would agree to sit in the front row.

8 Responses to “The sad controversy over ‘Coal Country’”

  1. Howie Branham says:

    I agree that the Gov.Manchin should be on the front row. This state sent me and a great many people to Iraq to give people the right to free speach. This is starting to become a free speach rights isuess, and Gov. Manchin should recall every member of the national guard from Iraq, if He is not going to protect the right of the people of this state to say what’s on there minds, reguardless of which side thay are on. It saddens me that all we went through in a another country has not been lost on the people of this good state. all veterns should call the Govenors office and demand that He get behind the showing of this movie. let the other side protest from a disstance if they wish, and are peacefull, and let the state police keep the peace. this breaks my heart that this even has to be takled about in West Virginia. maybe Gov.Manchin should ask that all of our guardsmen be sent home to help provid free speach in mountains of WV.

  2. watcher says:

    Ken, you are right you dont know what is or isn’t planned by the pro-coal folks, so the use of the word thuggery is uncalled for. I suggest the coal supporters have every right to “protest” the screening of this movie.

  3. dianne says:

    Thanks Ken for the forum you provide!

  4. Bob Kincaid says:

    If this film isn’t screened in Charleston it will simply prove, once and for all, that West Virginia is NOT a state in this Union; that West Virginia is, in fact, a fiefdom of out-of-state coal companies who motivate their workers through fear and intimidation and rule this state with an iron fist via jack-boot tactics; that we do not enjoy the rights guaranteed under the Constitution of the United States; that “speech” is not a right, but a commodity bought and sold by and to the highest bidder.

    Incidentally, it will also prove the failure of every idea the Coal Lobby and their cronies have put forth.

    Howie got it spot-on upthread. Thanks for saying what you did. It is sickening and heart-rending to realize that West Virginia has an information clampdown comparable to North Korea, Iran and China where Sacred Coal and Holy Profit are concerned.

    Gandhi said “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

    Welcome to Stage Three. It is bitter.

    Stage Four is going to be sweet.

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I would suggest that protesting the showing of a movie you haven’t seen is a silly response … it reminds me of a book my four-year-old reads, “Arthur and the Scare Your Pants Off Book Club.” See

    In the story, Arthur and his friends love this series of scary books, until one parent organizes a campaign to ban the books. But it turns out the parent hasn’t read the books — and when he does, he likes them.


  6. blue canary says:

    I’m not sure what the coal folks think their scare tactics are going to do, other than make them look bad. All the controversy around the movie just makes people more interested in seeing it!

  7. watcher says:

    Ken ,nothing silly about it , I’m pro-coal ,nothing to hide here. Besides you said it best, the movie has a point of view that m t r is not good and an economy focused on coal is not good,thats good enough for me .

  8. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    OK, folks …

    I’ve had to take down a couple of comments that were just nasty attacks on the other side of the issue … clearly, I’m fighting a losing battle trying to get people to actually talk with each other rather than just calling names and being nasty…

    So, we’re shutting down the comments on this post now.