As upsetting as almost all the information contained in The Last Mountain is, it's not nearly as disheartening as the attitudes of the just-plain-folks who stick stubbornly to the idea that opposition to mining coal amounts to environmental extremism.
Because, of course, wanting a clean environment and a life not threatened by poisonous pollution is such a radical idea.
Bill Haney's film, a documentary that looks at the impending flattening of the final mountain in a West Virginia area of Appalachia, is stark in its facts and unapologetic about its viewpoint. The filmmaker and his witnesses are very clear: Coal is killing the planet. And the economic forces surrounding coal have stacked the deck against making changes that could save this community in particular and the world in general.
The bottom line is, as always, the bottom line. The millions and billions behind coal, electric utilities and the rail companies have too much at stake to worry about something as inconsequential (and unprofitable) as not despoiling the planet.
The facts are horrifying. Haney and his surrogate, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., travel around the Coal River Mountain Valley, talking to people who are trying to stop Massey Energy -- the company behind the tragic coal-mine disaster last year -- from cutting the top off Coal River Mountain, the last mountain left in the area. They show the connections between big coal and 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.
Bush 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: 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.
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 -- 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 would leave the region devastated ecologically. The wind farm would provide more than $1 million a year in revenue -- indefinitely.
Guess which one they chose?
Indeed, as 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).
But 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.
The Last Mountain is well-made and, as a result, infuriating. The forces of coal dub these people "environmental extremists" -- and the big lie lives on.
Hopefully this film will do something to answer that. But you can't talk to people who have an economic stake in not listening.
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