The Last Mountain – Another Landscape Demolished

Artists like Robert Smithson or Christo who use the earth as a medium have nothing on the mining companies that are out-bulldozing them to redefine the landscape in West Virginia, and threatening to do so wherever there is money to be made.

The Last Mountain is a case study in the rape of that landscape.  Over the past 30 years, as miners’ unions were crushed, coal companies shifted from  expensive deep mines to strip mines – the industry euphemism is surface mines (think of gaming vs. the more sinister gambling) –  and creating those new mines now involves dynamiting mountaintops and digging out the coal.  It’s profitable, even though it destroys soil, fish, rivers, vegetation, and entire mountain ridges and the towns downhill from them.

It gets worse. Mining is dangerous work. And not just dangerous for miners. In towns near these mines, cancer rates have soared. Huge leeching ponds threaten everything downstream, and when the damns break, whatever’s downstream is destroyed. The last time a damn containing one of those ponds broke, more than twice the pollutants that came out of the Exxon Valdez flooded a West Virginia valley.

Coal protesters by Antrim Caskey

Coal protesters by Antrim Caskey

The industry’s argument, made by a coal executive in the first few frames of The Last Mountain,  is that explosions and deadly floods are “acts of  God” and that coal is the country’s key energy source for electricity (“we keep the lights on”). He stressed that the coal economy fuels everything in Appalachia. Without it, they say, the region would have no jobs. Environmentalists who feel differently are dismissed as anti-labor sentimentalists. Sounds like that old saying: we had to destroy the village in order to save it.

So –Strip mining is good for you and good for America, and especially good for Wall Street. And it’s good for Republicans, who get lots of money from the coal industry. Mind you – so do the Democrats who hold high office in West Virginia and other coal states.

The Last Mountain focuses on a grim case study.  Massey Energy Company, led by CEO Don Blankenship, a over-sized corporate bully out of central casting, is planning to decapitate scenic Coal River Mountain and dig out the coal from above. Families, retired miners, activists, and Robert F Kennedy Jr. gather to stop it, offering evidence of the potential damage and the benefits within reach by putting windmills there instead.  It’s to no avail. The earthmovers are deployed and an exquisitely beautiful place starts turning into a gravel pit.

Filmmaker Bill Haney follows Kennedy Jr. as he joins the battle. Kennedy doesn’t confront Massey CEO Don Blankenship face to face. He can’t, since Blankenship refuses to talk to him, and the hulking exec is not the kind of guy whom you nag in the style of Michael Moore. No surprise – Massey at the time had a pile of safety violations. Who on the company side would want to debate that?

It was odd, but maybe not so surprising to read a complaint by a critic in the New York Post that the filmmakers hadn’t spoken to representative of the coal industry. Watching the film again, after seeing it at Sundance in January, I sat through an entire scene in which Kennedy meets with Bill Raney, the head of the West Virginia Coal Association, who characterizes coal mine operators as the real humanitarians. The same man was among the opening voices in the documentary. The executive then takes the filmmakers to an old coal-fired power plant to show them how safe it is. His claims to safety are refuted by data which show that the mine pollutes the air with toxic gas. Claims that land can be restored are refuted by a walk that Kennedy takes through “restored” land where even grass won’t grow.

The activists don’t keep the coal company from hacking away at the mountain, much of which is turned into a slag heap.  This is a matter of record , so I’m not giving away any secrets.

In case you’ve been driven to despair, there is another way, according to the film. Wind power in the endangered mountain ridges could provide comparable energy with no pollution, and the energy source wouldn’t be burned away, never to be used again. Sound encouraging? The politicians of West Virginia don’t think so. Nor did the Bush administration.

Does anyone remember, Harlan County USA, by a brave young filmmaker (now a veteran), Barbara Kopple. It won an Oscar in 1976 for its portrayal of a community in nearby Kentucky that waged a successful strike against a powerful coal operator. Back in the 1970’s, Peter Biskind in the magazine Jumpcut said the film was about “burning people to make electricity.” Sound familiar? There aren’t strikes like that any more, because there aren’t enough unionized miners  to make such an action effective.  Mountaintop removal, which is efficient, relatively cheap, and thorough, gives you more coal with fewer employees for a lot less money.

If you’re not troubled by these developments or if you question the environmental side’s rhetoric in The Last Mountain, try the websites for Climate Depot or get the industry side from Coal News and Coal Zoom. Then look at the ravaged mountains. Then rethink the price of energy.

Think positively. With all the mountaintops hacked away, West Virginia could be an ideal place for disaster films.  Without the hope of wind, that could be a description of a sequel to The Last Mountain.

Yet the sequels to these documentaries tend to play in the media, rather than in theaters. And the furst sequel to The Last Mountain appeared before the theatrical release of the documentary. Under pressure from studies that documented the danger of Massey’s mines, Don Blankenship sold the company to Alpha Natural Resources, a multinational operator with a kinder and gentler public profile. Given the cost advantages of mountaintop removal, and the lack of much regulation (which this film shows), it’s hard to imagine things changing much.

But there’s another player. The US consumer. Coal execs will tell you – and they aren’t wrong – that Americans are supporting the industry every time they turn on their lights. Anyone notice that?


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