Coal River and The Last Mountain

by Sasha

The Last Mountain is a documentary starring the movement to save Coal River Valley from mountaintop removal coal mountain villains Massey Coal and Don Blankenship. Director Bill Haney takes the viewer through a swarm of communities and experts whose stories bind together around the most important issues surrounding MTR, environmental degradation and displacement. On the one hand, it is an exhilarating exposé of the hand-in-hand exploitation of workers and the environment waged by industry and government, but under the surface, The Last Mountain is a heart-warming expression of tenacious community action.

 Interviewing a key cast of characters and following them through rallies and meetings, blockades and lockdowns with high quality footage of some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, The Last Mountain tells the story of a steadfast people, the reluctant heros on the forefront of an environmental revolution. This is the fight against Mountaintop Removal coal mining. It is a bare-bones, grizzly struggle filled with frustrations, suffering, and heart-wrenching grief, but it is also a story of dedicated activists that brings hope and inspiration to everyone.

 Through the work of these bold activists, a web of corruption and graft is exposed. The industry-government collusion that cut a swath through the environmental governance of coal in West Virginia was set up over the course of the industrial revolution and throughout the 20th Century. The coal companies and the politicians held the public in sway for the better part of a century, with the railroads, which profited from the coal trafficking, as their right-hand partner. During the 1970s, a popular environmentalist movement formed, bringing into existence Earth Day along with dozens of environmental laws. However, through the 1980s and ’90s, a regime of union busting and environmental impunity culminated in the election of George W. Bush, which ushered in a “coal powered victory,” and led to the growth of the worst phase of strip mining vis-a-vis the alteration of a single word in the text of the Clean Water Act.

 In one of many poignant moments of The Last Mountain, Goldman Prize winner, Maria Gunnoe, leads the film crew through a ghost town, featuring the remains of a boarded-up church. We also see the abandoned and derelict United Mine Workers Association union hall. The symbolic death of spirituality and the UMWA at the hands of MTR and Massey Coal is no great stretch of the imagination. Gunnoe explains that Massey’s agenda is to “depopulate these communities and turn this whole area into a wasteland.”

 As the documentary shows, Blankenship spent his formative years with Massey closing and reopening coal mines to shake off union contracts, leading to the atrophy of the historic UMWA. Over this period, the coal companies increased production by 130% in the last 30 years, while 40,000 workers were cut from the payroll. At the same time, Massey let safety regulations dwindle into nothing, racking up tens of thousands of violations with no reproductions. Finally stung with 20,000 safety violations by the EPA in 2010, Massey simply paid off the fine with ease and proceeded to mark up 8,500 violations in the next few months. The wasteland that remains goes beyond the ghost towns, as is revealed by activist and environmental lawyer, Bobby Kennedy, Jr., who takes the crew to a so-called “reclaimed mountaintop”, which the “environmentalists” at Massey had “replanted” with sparse stubbles of grassy brush jutting out from a forbidding soil of rock and dust—a far cry from the lush, hardwood forests of Ash, Oak, Cherry, Walnut, and Poplar native to Appalachia.

 The Last Mountain also recalls the Upper Big Branch mine shaft collapse, exposing the immediate, deadly consequences of Massey’s greed, but the effects are also illustrated through a unique trip to a scenic neighboring community, where Jennifer Hall-Massey leads the crew to a street where six residents living side-by-side were diagnosed with brain tumors in quick succession (the national average is upwards of 1 in every 100,000). One of the most emotional points in the documentary comes through the subplot of Marsh Fork Elementary School. As the coal silo looms 150 feet from the school, concerned parents and students  join together with the group Pennies of Promise to attempt to move the governor to build a new school. As he stonewalls the public, the people become more furious, and actions build from a road blockade to the occupation of the governor’s office.

 Direct action group, Climate Ground Zero, is also given credence throughout the film, which documents the November 21, 2009, drill rig lockdown and the January 2010 tree sit. The perspicuous activist might recognize the late Judy Bonds with her trademark vivacity pacing around an anti-Massey rally at one point, and at another point jumpin’ with joy while reading a report about the event. “Deal with that Don Blankenship!” she exclaims, followed by David Aaron Smith’s down-to-earth account of the tree sit and his short stint in a the local jail.

 But the problem does not stop at the MTR sites. The documentary shows how coal fired power plants like Shippingport are connected to autism, asthma, and cancer. At the same time, we see the plans for wind energy on Coal River Mountain put forward by activists like Lorelie Scarboro and Bo Webb of the Coal River Wind Project. Once again, however, the powers that be have found a way to stifle all alternatives through none other than the tax code. As opposed to the $30k per year in taxes paid to blow up a mountain, a wind farm would be forced to fork over $1.75 million annually.

 One of the revelations of The Last Mountain is Bobby Kennedy Jr., who features prominently in the film and is a supporter of a nation-wide wind energy “smart grid.” As an environmental lawyer, Kennedy is in fine form throughout, whether speaking to a rally of supporters and visiting folks who refuse to be relocated by Massey, or arguing with a Massey official at a burger joint and even mixing it up with a pro-MTR miner on the street. Much of the documentary is informed by Kennedy’s discourse, which along with leading intellectual figures like Devra Davis, author of The Secret History of the War Against Cancer, forms the scientific and legal backbone.

 The conclusion resolves the film on a relatively positive note, showing Blankenship’s retirement along with the sale of Massey, the scaling-down of the Shippingport coal fired power plant, a law suit brought by Jennifer Hall Massey against coal companies for their medical problems, and the creation of a new school for the kids of Marsh Fork. With a brilliant array of maps, facts, archive footage, graphics, interviews, and high resolution film of direct action and community organizing, The Last Mountain is one of the most watchable documentaries out there. It not only makes the case against Massey, but tells the epic story of heroism at its most basic and visceral. The documentary is engaging on every level. As an organizing tool, it is a clear success, and its depth and cast of characters is captivating even after the second or third time around.

 You can find it on netflix or go to thelastmountain.com for more information. The mountains are calling!

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