Coal Tattoo

A few thoughts on ‘The Last Mountain’

If I had a dollar for every time my phone rings and the person on the other line is an author or a filmmaker or an out-of-town journalist who has discovered the mountaintop removal story and is sure they have found something new about it … well, if I had that cash, you all wouldn’t have this blogger to kick around anymore.

I’m ashamed to admit that I long ago stopped trying to read every magazine piece or book or sit down and closely watch every documentary on the subject. Despite the claims by some that the media ignores the issue, mountaintop removal has gotten wide, deep and consistent attention, with that coverage only growing in recent years.

But I did sit down last night and watch a DVD review copy of “The Last Mountain.” I even made my wife watch with me.  The film is getting so much attention that I wanted to check it out. And yes, I wanted to see if the long interview I did with an earlier set of the project’s filmmakers had somehow survived getting tossed on the cutting room floor.

I can’t even remember for sure when the interview was, but I think at least five years ago. They were most interested in talking to me about the stories I did revealing that the new coal silos at Massey Energy’s Goals Coal facility were actually outside the mapped permit area adjacent to Marsh Fork Elementary School.

Those stories came out in 2005, and one thing that struck me in watching the film was how much has happened in the six years since the site of Raleigh County grandfather Ed Wily, protesting the school’s location downstream from a Massey impoundment and adjacent to the company’s processing plant convinced me to detour over to the WVDEP office’s file room and take a look at the old maps on the site.

The campaign to stop (or depending on what side you’re on to continue) mountaintop removal has come a long, long way:

— Joe Lovett and his growing staff  of lawyers at the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment have filed more lawsuits and won more court victories, with help from the Sierra Club, Earthjustice and Public Justice.

— Activists working against mountaintop removal have hunkered down for a long peaceful civil disobedience campaign, launching direct action protests to literally put their bodies between the mining machines and the mountains.

Anti-mountaintop removal Bo Webb. Photo by Antrim Caskey.

— President Obama was elected, taking office in January 2009, and giving the U.S. EPA new ability to try to curb the damaging impacts of mountaintop removal, with tougher permit reviews and a veto of the largest mountaintop removal permit ever in West Virginia history.

— Coal industry officials and their friends among Appalachia’s political leaders have fought back, calling the Obama moves a “war on coal,” and crafting new public relations campaigns aimed at blocking any tougher rules on mining or coal’s air pollution impacts.

Maria Gunnoe. Photo by Vivian Stockman.

The film walks us through much of this recent history pretty clearly. It also includes fine portraits of some of the local residents who have given so much of themselves to trying to have these issues addressed. It’s easy to forget how compelling the stories of folks like Bo Webb and Maria Gunnoe really are until you see their narratives as relayed by outside storytellers.

And gosh, this film has just incredible aerial footage and some of the best close-up views of a dragline operating that I’ve ever seen.

Also, the interviews with some of the young folks taking part in the protests against mountaintop removal were fascinating, not for their expertise in coal issues, but for their thoughtful explanations of the power of peaceful civil disobedience as a tool for social change.

At times, the film seems strained in its effort to tell the mountaintop removal story as one centered around the efforts of Robert F. Kennedy to bring the issue to a broader audience and help local activists here succeed in their fight. Some of the events appeared — perhaps because they were — staged to get footage for the film.

Probably my favorite parts were the mini-lectures from Bobby Kennedy about the law of the commons, and how historically things like clean air and fresh water were the property of all the people. Kennedy was  especially good when he talked about Robin Hood, and the king trying to stop poor peasants from being able to hunt deer to feed themselves.

Like most people, Kennedy is at his best when talking about his own experience, and he clearly feels strongly about how our natural resources should be part of the commons. This is all a view that West Virginia political leaders certainly don’t talk much about in their endless effort to promote themselves as supporting whatever the coal industry wants. The strength of the film is that it’s told through Kennedy’s view point, which is obviously built on a very different life experience from most of us here in West Virginia.

But, as Kennedy did in his debate a year ago with then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship, the film stumbles a few times on inconvenient facts that get in the way of the narrative or a point they’re trying to make.

For example, the film makes out like changing the Clean Water Act definition of “waste material” to help out coal companies was entirely a creature of the George W. Bush administration. In fact, that particular rule change began and was first formally proposed by the Clinton administration in April 2000. And, as best I could tell, the film was continuing the use of the bogus comparison between industry-wide jobs for wind power and miners-only jobs for the coal industry.

And nothing against Allen Hershkowitz, but personally,  I would have liked to see the science in the movie coming from someone like Margaret Palmer or Greg Pond or Michael Hendryx, rather than someone from inside the NRDC, the group Kennedy works with. But hey, it’s his movie.

In the end, this is a powerful film, and it’s important for folks in West Virginia to watch — because a lot of people outside of our state will watch it.

We should understand how the rest of the country views us, and how that conflicts with how we view ourselves. And we should understand what the rest of the country thinks of what’s happening here with mountaintop removal, whether we think they’re right or not.

Perhaps that’s why one thing that actually really troubled me about the film was the scenes with my buddy Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.  It’s hard to feel sorry for Bill, but who can really take on Kennedy in a one-on-one discussion that was set up to be filmed for Kennedy’s movie? Not many people.

But those scenes were about the only voice in the movie for people who continue to rely on mountaintop removal for their jobs, except for a few pretty limiting sequences where Kennedy tries to talk with pro-coal protesters who showed up for a big rally outside the WVDEP offices here in Charleston.

It reminded me again of the play series Higher Ground, and about the huge problems our region is likely to face as coal production from Central Appalachian continues its inevitable decline. As described in The New York Times and mentioned before here on Coal Tattoo, there’s a scene in one of the plays, called Talking Dirt, that goes something like this:

“Talking Dirt” offers an empathetic twist to its otherwise gloomy view of strip mining. While Beth, who has been offered a scholarship, opposes strip mining, Roger, a young miner, shows her that her privileged status gives her the luxury to choose.

“There wasn’t anybody standing there offering me a scholarship when I graduated high school,” he tells her.

It’s becoming more and more clear that the rest of the country — especially power brokers in places like Washington, D.C., and New York — understand the damage that mountaintop removal does to our region’s environment and communities.

That’s important. But do they understand fully where all this coal is going? And more importantly, do they really understand the economic trap that young people find themselves in across the coalfields?  I’m not talking about the “war old coal” rhetoric that says if you try to more fully regulate coal’s impacts the sky will come falling down. I’m talking about the situations that young folks like Roger and Beth confront every day. Figuring out how to give them more options is the huge task that really confronts this region, whether you ban mountaintop removal or not.

In its defense, “The Last Mountain includes a lengthy examination of the proposals to turn Coal River Mountain into a wind farm, instead of a mountaintop removal site.  But I wondered as I watched it if Paul Krugman would have cringed at how easy the film made it sound to transition the coalfields into the home of clean energy production.

There’s a free showing of The Last Mountain Friday night at 6:30 at the West Virginia State University Capitol Center Theater on Summers Street here in Charleston. There’s limited seating and it’s first come, first served. Other dates and locations around the country are available here.