“The Last Mountain,” a documentary film directed by Bill Haney, featuring Robert Kennedy, Jr.
As I walked into the theater to see “The Last Mountain,” the ticket taker said, “Enjoy the movie!” then added, “Oh, well, I guess that’s not the right thing to say about this film.” You don’t go to a movie about the possible destruction of the planet by the coal industry with the idea of enjoying it. You go in to find out how this can happen and what can be done about it. The film is heavy on disheartening facts, yet it focuses on ways to stop relying on coal for energy and to end mountaintop removal.
The title of director Bill Haney’s arresting, beautifully shot film is based on Coal River Mountain in West Virginia, the last mountain range in that region that hasn’t had its top blasted off. “The Last Mountain” hones in on the inhabitants of Coal River Valley, a toy-like village nestled at the foot of the mountain, who are fighting coal giant Massey, who aims to do just that.
The film’s stunningly beautiful aerial shots illustrate how Massey has blasted much of the vast, undulating, emerald- green Appalachians into moonscapes, showing thousands of acres of hard rock, rubble and dust, gouged out and tracked with labyrinthine roads traveled on by heavy machinery only diminished in size by the scale of the ruins.
According to Haney, an unbelievable 2500 blasts the size of the Hiroshima bombing occur two or three times a day, putting people on edge. He includes shots of the monstrous, deafening, earth-shattering explosions, which send up mushroom clouds of toxic smoke and debris that pollutes the air and water.
The cancer rate in the region is comparatively higher than other villages of similar populations, with cancer clusters and deaths occurring in the same neighborhood. And respiratory illnesses are prevalent. In April 2010, a Massey mine explosion at Upper Big Branch killed 29 miners, the worst mine disaster since 1970; Massey is currently being tried in court.
Debris from blasts is dumped off the mountain, blocking creeks and rivers, killing everything, and polluting well water. In a well house, a woman from the local water board displays a pristine, white replacement filter. “These,” she explains to Haney, “are supposed to last at least six months.” She then removes a gunky, rust-red filter from a pipe leading to a well. “This one,” she says, holding it up, “has been used for only two weeks.”
William Sadler narrates this true horror story, which affects the lives of people like Maria Gunnoe. She wanted to do something to stop the desecration of the mountains, never thinking she’d be an activist. Haney interviewed her and others like her whose families have lived in the area for hundreds of years. When no one in authority would listen when the people needed help fighting Massey, they approached known environmental activist celebrity, Robert Kennedy Jr. He flew over the area, saw the damage, listened to the complaints, and became their spokesman.
In the film, Massey spokesmen warn the townsfolk at meetings that without coal, they’ll have electricity only a couple of hours a day; life-saving machines in hospitals will fail; backup generators won’t be of any use; people who rely on them will die. In one effective scene in a coffee shop, Kennedy meets a Massey representative who launches into a coal equals electricity refrain, adding that people will lose jobs, etc. Kennedy responds with relevant information about the destruction of the land, the pollution, and the illnesses Massey’s mining has caused. The man holds up his hand: “Wait a minute! You Northern guys talk too fast.”
Kennedy tells him that the concept of coal’s creating jobs is a fallacy; that when Massey turned mining into blasting, miners lost jobs to heavy equipment operators and demolition experts. He goes on to explain how the wind-turbine industry employs as many people as coal. Haney’s film also shows how coal giants, particularly Don Blankenship, former head of Massey Coal, set out to destroy unions.
Massey representatives assure the villagers that they “restore” mountains to their previous state. Filmmaker Haney accompanies Kennedy and an environmentalist to Massey’s idea of a completely restored mountain: the rubble that had been blasted from it is dumped on top, and covered over with patches of weeds and a scattering of dried-out wildflowers.
Massey also promised creek restoration. Again, we travel to a rock-filled slash on a mountainside passing as a riverbed. When it rains, the environmentalist explains, it cascades down the “restored” creek, turning the narrow river flowing through the valley into a raging torrent that breaches its banks, destroying everything in its path.
Then there’s sludge. Coal mining requires massive amounts of water, which when mixed with coal dust, creates thick, black sludge. Held in huge lakes, it continuously seeps through earthen containment walls into waterways and aquifers. Often, the pressure of the sludge breaks through. In his film, Haney includes a nightmarish clip showing black sludge surging through the Appalachian hollows and valleys, engorging entire communities, rendering areas uninhabitable for years.
One segment of Haney’s film shows peaceful protesters, among them, a wheelchair-bound 90-year-old woman, man-handled and hauled into vans by armed police. The film also includes clips of pro-coal demonstrators, cheered on by Blankenship, wearing American flag-themed outfits, shouting ugly epithets at peaceful anti-coal protesters.
Haney interviewed Pacific Northwest-based environmental activists, tree sitters, who show up in the Valley to lend support. Welcomed by locals, they rigged up platforms in the trees on the targeted mountain. Massey gave up after nine days when its loud music and sound cannons failed to unseat them.
In the film, President Obama talks to Robert Kennedy Jr. about new guidelines to strengthen the EPA. However, since this film was made, Obama is looking at drilling for oil in Alaska and the Gulf. And ignoring the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear disaster, he is pushing for nuclear energy.
It’s up to us to do everything in our power not only to stop mountain-top removal, but also to end the fossil fuel industry completely. Wind power and other clean energy sources will render fossil fuel just that—a fossil, i.e. an outdated thing of the past.
> The article above was written by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith. It first appeared in the July 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.