Bill Haney’s new film, The Last Mountain, is a documentary that takes a close look at the impending flattening of the final mountain in a West Virginia area of Appalachia. It is frank in its portrayal of the facts and unsympathetic about its viewpoint. The filmmaker and his witnesses are very clear and concise in their statement that Coal is killing the planet, and that the economic forces backing coal have stacked the deck against making changes that could save this local community in particular and the world in general.
The bottom line for coal, as is any other big business, as always, is ultimately the bottom line. The millions, and even billions of dollars behind the coal industry, electric utilities and the rail companies translates into the plain fact that they have too much at stake to worry about something as inconsequential (and unprofitable) as not destroying the planet.
The facts portrayed in the movie are horrifying. Filmmaker Haney and his surrogate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., travel around the Coal River Mountain Valley, talking to the local people who are trying to stop Massey Energy, a coal energy giant, and the company behind the tragic coal-mine disaster last year, from cutting the top off the last mountain left in the area, which turns out to be Coal River Mountain. They implicitly show the political connections between big coal and current West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, while detailing the way the industry was able to co-opt the entire federal government’s regulatory structure under George W. Bush.
The Bush Administration put industry faithful in charge of everything from the Dept. of the Interior to the Environmental Protection Agency. They in turn watered down or ignored regulations, allowing a company like Massey to run up 60,000 violations in the first six years of GWB’s run, while minimizing fines or enforcement.
The film also looks at the deadly health effects of coal in general, such as the heavy metals that coal releases into the air when burned; the sludge and other toxic byproducts that it produces, and the way that the industry has, over the years, managed to forestall any serious discussion of regulation into the industry. This, not to mention the fact that the whole mining and extraction process of coal is another environmental disaster in and of itself.
In Coal Mountain Valley, the forces against flattening the final mountain come up with a plan to replace the projected strip-mine with a serious wind farm. They detail the financial advantages. which are the only language the companies seemingly understand, and they’re amazing. The mine itself would produce approximately $300,000 in revenue for the community over less than two decades before the vein of coal was mined out, and leave the region devastated ecologically. The wind farm would provide more than $1 million a year in revenue, indefinitely.
And now heres the big question, guess which decision they make?
Of course, they chose the coal option because the lobbying power of the industries linked to coal will never let that happen. They’ve convinced too many people that it’s in their own interest to continue in a direction that breeds only destruction.
But, to those without financial ties vested in coal, that will never happen. In the movie, Kennedy points out, a serious wind farm on the Great Plains (“the Saudi Arabia of wind,” as Kennedy puts it) would provide enough electricity to power the entire country, at a fraction of the cost that coal carries (when you figure in the price of pollution, environmental damage and health-care problems).
The Last Mountain constitutes a well-made, and, as a result, infuriating look into the politics of the coal industry and the lives it affects. The powers that be in the coal industry dub these people “environmental extremists”, and the big lie lives on. Maybe that lie worked in 1900, but today, with all the technological advances we have made, come on man!
Hopefully The Last Mountain will do something to answer that issue, but apparently you can’t talk to people who have an economic stake in not listening.