Taking a well-informed look at the “The Last Mountain”

Jun 10, 2011 by


The Last Mountain” has gotten a lot of buzz (the New York Times called it “a furious documentary”) in its portrayal of the damage to communities, people and the land caused by mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. See it in a free showing 6:30 p.m. today at the Capitol Center Theater, 123 Summers St., in downtown Charleston. In attendance will be activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who is among those profiled in the film, as well as director Bill Haney and producers Clara Bingham and Eric Grunebaum.

My Gazette colleague Ken Ward has an excellent and thoughtful review of the film up on his “Coal Tattoo” blog today and I highly recommend the whole thing to you. In its general, but nuanced praise of the film it touches upon a central conundrum of any concerted move away from the current forms of coal mining in Appalachia. What about the people and families whose lives now depend on this industry? First, Ward runs down how much has changed since 2005 in the battle over mountaintop removal mining:

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.

– 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.

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.

Ken goes on, though, to make some important points about the people who rely on mining for a living:

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.

Again, I encourage you to read the whole thing. As Ken notes: “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.” I would add to his observations that if the struggle to transform out of a carbon-based monoculture in the Appalachian coalfields is ever to get anywhere – and to get there without violence and widespread social upheaval – the implications to the people whose livelihoods and families depend on this industry at the moment cannot be downplayed or blithely dismissed. ~ Douglas Imbrogno