By Pamela Zoslov
In his book about the hard life of coal miners in the industrial north of England, The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote, “Our civilization…is founded on coal…the machines that keep us alive, and the machines that make the machines, are all directly or indirectly dependent upon coal. In the metabolism of the Western world, the coal-miner is second in importance only to the man who ploughs the soil.”
Bill Haney’s passionate documentary, The Last Mountain, about the fight to protect the mountains and towns of
The film chronicles the battle over Coal River Mountain, in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia, where residents and environmental activists are struggling to stop Big Coal corporations – in particular the notorious Massey Energy and its now-retired CEO, Don Blankenship – from continuing the practice of mountaintop removal mining, which involves dynamiting the mountain’s top off to mine the coal within. Mountaintop removal mining, aside from the damage it inflicts on the landscape and those who love it, poisons the air and water with lead, arsenic and selenium, promotes cancer deaths and spreads pollution to other states. “You feel like you’re under attack, two or three ties a day” one resident says of the massive explosions.
Mountaintop removal, according to the film, has destroyed 500
The Last Mountain vividly illustrates the human toll of coal production. Maria Gunnoe, a native of a valley in
The movement to stop mountaintop removal mining has a powerful advocate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the attorney and environmental activist whose lifelong commitment to protecting the planet is rooted in a childhood love of nature and a legacy inherited from his father, who fought stip mining. As a young boy, RFK Jr. lobbied his uncle, President John Kennedy, for stronger environmental laws. In the film, Kennedy speaks passionately and eloquently about the basis of environmental law in the Roman Justinian Code, which defined environmental rights – to the air, the flowing water and the sea – as basic human rights. “It was God who made these mountains, and Don Blankenship who is taking them down.”
Although the film is not about Kennedy, as a side note it’s interesting to think about
As Kennedy engages in a coffee-shop debate with Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, the two men appear to occupy different universes. Kennedy speaks in broad, philosophical terms about protecting the planet, while Raney takes a practical line, arguing that the industry does everything it can to protect the environment while also safeguarding jobs and “making electricity for you.” Blankenship and his cronies demonize protesters as “environmental extremists,” and indeed mountaintop removal has inspired some extreme acts of non-violent protest. Grandmothers and grandfathers allow themselves to be hauled off to jail; one group of activists staged a tree-sit that for nine days halted blasting on
As with all evils in today’s political landscape, the root of it is money. The powerful coal industry lobby has helped put many a coal-friendly politician in office, most notably George W. Bush, whose environmental policies – including gutting key sections of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, reducing EPA enforcement and approving mountaintop removal -- were a gifts to the coal and oil industries. (For his part, Barack Obama has touted the promise of “clean coal,” an aspirational industry slogan that one environmental attorney likened to “a healthy cigarette”).
Kennedy describes the political issue with ringing rhetoric: “We are living in a science-fiction nightmare where children are gasping for breath on bad-air days because somebody gave money to a politician. And my children, and the kids of millions of other Americans, can no longer go fishing and eat their catch, because somebody gave money to a politician.” The Appalachian mountains, Kennedy says, “the birthplace of American democracy, the landscapes where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone roamed, the source of our values, our virtues, our character as a people – are being cut to the ground so somebody can make money.”
What does the movie propose as an alternative to ruinous, toxic coal, a commodity on which so much of modern life depends? The final segment is devoted to the promise of wind farming, and it makes a strong case for the economic viability of this clean, renewable energy source.
What Orwell wrote in 1937 still applies to the dirty business of coal mining, whether from underground mines or mountaintop blasting. “On the whole we are never aware of it. We all know that ‘we must have coal,’ but we seldom or never remember what coal-getting involves. Here am I sitting writing in front of my comfortable coal fire. It is April but Istill need a fire. Once a fortnight the coal cart drives up to the door and men in leather jerkins carry the coal indoors in stout sacks smelling of tar and shoot it clanking into the coal-hole under the stairs. It is only very rarely, when I make a definite mental-effort, that I connect this coal with that far-off labour in the mines. It is just 'coal' — something that I have got to have; black stuff that arrives mysteriously from nowhere in particular, like manna except that you have to pay for it.”