by Hugh Fisher
In these days of inexpensive energy, we take electricity for granted.
“Every time I flip a switch, it comes on,” one interviewee said as the new documentary “The Last Mountain” opens.
And some 16 pounds of coal a day is burned per every man, woman and child in America to make that happen.
Director and co-writer Bill Haney claims to show the real cost of that energy, one that’s sparked a war in West Virginia.
There are images of protestors being carried out by police against images of mountain ridges being blown apart by high explosives. And there are images of water and soil experts say are polluted by coal mining companies.
In Boone County, W. Va., the problem is literally in the backyard.
“We are cutting down the Appalachian Mountains … They are blowing off the tops of the mountains,” one resident said.
Mining companies set off 2,500 tons of explosives a day, which Robert Kennedy Jr. says is equivalent to a Hiroshima-sized blast a week.
Kennedy has lent his name and effort to the cause of stopping this method of mining. In mountaintop removal mining, the tops of mountains are literally blown off. For their part, coal company spokespeople say they’re replacing the mountaintops.
The film shows images of “stream substitutes” that look like gravel drainage ditches, and mountaintops where rock has replaced topsoil after mining is done.
The film’s claim is that coal mining using mountaintop removal methods destroys the environment permanently.
The “moonscape” left behind is full of dust, ruining wells and springs, contaminating the water.
In one community, a group of people began developing brain tumors across all age groups and backgrounds. The one thing they had in common: well water.
They also tie the George W. Bush administration to these problems, citing changes in laws that allowed mountaintop removal mining.
This is why Kennedy says he got involved in what one activist called “a people’s intervention.”
Protestors are shown sitting in trees, blocking roads and stopping machinery in an attempt to stop Massey Energy from blowing up part of Coal River Mountain.
It would be a lot easier to hear the coal industry’s side of things if not for images of rallies against environmentalists. Supposedly, the coal companies say, the issue is jobs.
Clips show coal industry spokespeople railing against “environmental extremists” they say want to kill American labor.
“Whose jobs? Our jobs!” they chant, waving American flags. “Whose coal? Our coal!”
The solution one group proposes is wind farms on the mountaintops instead of blowing them up. The point is made that the wind industry can provide as many jobs as the coal industry does now.
“The Last Mountain” is filled with statistics and images that raise questions about “clean coal,” as the industry likes to call it now. It’s clearly designed to make you think twice about coal in general, no matter how it’s mined.
But for all Haney’s emotional cinematography and interviews, there are no easy answers.
The coal industry is a leading contributor to politics at the state and federal levels. And renewable energy can’t meet demand, at least not in the current political climate.
But no matter your political views, “The Last Mountain” is worth seeing. This well-done film will certainly make you think about where your energy comes from the next time you turn on that switch.
Grade: 3.5/4 stars