Inside D.C. entertainment

Sundance 2011: 'The Last Mountain' and the D.C. frontline against coal

January 24, 2011 - 01:07 PM
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the last mountain
West Virginia activist Maria Gunnoe on a mountaintop mine.

Growing up, Clara Bingham spent her summers in Louisville, Ky., where her extended family still lives, and would often travel out to Appalachia on the eastern side of the state. A former White House correspondent for Newsweek and the author of two books (Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harassment Law, which was adapted into North Country starring Charlize Theron, and Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress), she returned there in 2004, near the end of her 16-year tenure living in D.C., to write a story for Washington Monthly about a coal-mining sludge spill for which no one — save the whistleblower — was punished. While reporting the story, she became acquainted with mountaintop removal mining, in which the peaks of mountains are literally blown up to access the coal underneath.

"It was the first time I saw mountaintop removal in person and it pretty much radicalized me," she says. "It was so shocking to see." She spoke with Bill Haney, a documentary filmmaker and friend of hers since Harvard, "and Bill and I both realized the only way to tell the story of the destruction, and how obscene it is, is visually."

Many of the shots in The Last Mountain, which Haney directed and Bingham co-produced, are shocking indeed. The camera soars above West Virginia's Coal River Valley, ground zero in the fight against mountaintop removal, where the lush green forest is interrupted by gray, blasted mountaintops — kind of like a hairy dog with massive scars. "A helicopter does such a wonderful job of giving you the perspective," says Haney. "I think one of the things the coal industry has counted on is that it's very difficult to see this." A veneer of trees often obscures the mining from ground level. "Basically, it's the moral equivalent of a Potemkin village that has this lustrous facade and right behind it is this horrible devastation. You can't get in there because it's all their land, so the only way is by air."

As the film states at the beginning, almost half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from burning coal, sixteen pounds of it per day for each American, and 30 percent of that coal comes from Appalachia. While the industry provides needed jobs to the region, The Last Mountain shows that resistance to mountaintop removal comes not just from outside the community — from people like lawyer and environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — but also from within. Brain tumors and cancer rates are well above the national average, constant explosions make residents feel like they're at war, flooding frequently occurs because there's less vegetation to absorb rainfall, and in one instance a processing plant literally abuts a high school — with a sludge dam, which have been known to burst and kill people, just upriver. So it's little surprise that not all West Virginians are on board with mountaintop mining.

But our nation's energy demands being what they are, what do Haney and Bingham propose we do? Rebuild our energy grid to run on wind power, a solution that will cause not a few people to roll their eyes. But Haney says it's not unrealistic, especially when you consider that the wind industry already employs as many Americans as the coal industry does. "So it isn't so that the jobs argument is pro-coal," he says. "It's just not true. Now they'll say it, you're absolutely right, and if somebody like you or us doesn't say, 'Bullshit,' they just keep saying it and buying more ads. But it's not true." The technology, he adds, "completely exists to go to wind. It's a pure economic decision. The cost of it would be, as an example, a tenth of the cost of the Iraq War." It would be an enormous public project, of course, but "if we took a view that it's so hard, we never would have had the federal highway system or the Manhattan Project or the lunar launch or any of these things. If we had the attitude of those, we could absolutely be done with coal, period. It's just about political will."

And does that will exist? It certainly didn't during the Bush administration, when many of the nation's top environmental posts were given to people with a track record for opposing, rather than supporting, environmental protection. Just one example: J. Steven Griles, a coal industry lobbyist who served as Deputy Secretary of the Interior from 2001-2004. "The thing that traumatized me about watching the Bush administration was not that their politics were different than mine or the policies were at times absurdist," Haney says. "They fundamentally were attacking the Renaissance. They attacked the idea that you used facts to form opinions."

Now, with Obama, he says, "I think in general we've seen a lot of positive change. You can feel it in the movie." He notes the Environmental Protection Agency's recent invocation of the Clean Water Act to halt the disposal of mining waste at a proposed mine, and the Department of Labor's lawsuit against Massey Energy Co. to close a mine in Kentucky.

"The politics of coal is fascinating and it's very sticky, and I think the Obama administration is in a tough spot," Bingham says. "Essentially, Brown Dog Democrats are really holding on tight and the coal industry is funding them. It all comes down to Washington, and whether the Obama administration and members of Congress who really care are going to be able to push change, either slowly or more aggressively."

But the change, Haney and Bingham say, really comes from the public — from people like Maria Gunnoe, who was a waitress when she mobilized opposition to mountaintop mining in Appalachia.

"The movie's really about the power of citizen activism," Bingham says, "and it really is an incredibly powerful force, the way West Virginia has become the Selma of the environmental movement. With 200 people being arrested, that kind of grassroots movement against this enormous industry, is just the beginning, we think, of a tidal change."

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