Sundance: Rage, Outrage, and a Vision

The Last Mountain, which premiered today at Sundance, is about the fight to save one last mountain ridge in West Virginia from being blown up and strip mined for coal.

This is a must see, must share, film. It will be released in June. Lobby to get it to your town, your community, your school. It will enrage you. It will -- hopefully -- move you to action.

I saw it with my daughter, Ana. She watched in tears. We're writing this article together.

Ana: The film focuses mainly on Coal River Valley, West Virginia, which is surrounded by extremely vivid examples of the devastating effects of mountain top removal. As I watched the film progress I met the people getting cancer from the pollution, saw their children developing asthma and being born with autism due to the greed of major corporations. I keep in mind that coal is being burned in 600 power plants across the country. The dangers of coal-fired power plants ARE close-to-home for all Americans, no matter where they live.

It's a David v. Goliath story.

This time David is a waitress with two kids, Maria Gunnoe.

Goliath is Massey Energy.
And what a villain they are. As exploitive as Fagin in Oliver Twist, as rapacious as the great white shark in Jaws, as smug as Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs, as imperious as Darth Vader in Star Wars. Except, of course, the company is real. Like all great villains, Massey's CEO and its spokespeople, seem to sincerely believe that what they are doing is right.

Ana: Robert Kennedy, Jr. is a powerful part of the fight to preserve the Appalachian mountains and stop companies like Massey Energy from destroying people's homes, their health and most importantly, their futures. There's a part in the film when Kennedy speaks about when the bulldozers came to build a road through the forest next to his childhood home. The animated movie called Fern Gully immediately came to mind, and the feelings I felt as a child about the loggers coming to cut down the rain forest. Every child knows that cutting down forests is wrong, burying streams and rivers is wrong, and blowing up the tops of mountains and leaving only leveled ground and lakes of toxic sludge behind, is definitely wrong.

Think of coal as a center point.

The filmmakers, and Robert Kennedy, Jr., who is featured in the film, do. The most significant issues we face today, radiate out from that point.

On every level, coal mining and burning coal for energy is destructive.

Mountain top removal and strip mining, "has destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2000 miles of streams." Processing the coal puts coal dust in the air and creates billions of tons of toxic sludge. Massey has 28 ponds filled with toxic sludge. In the last ten years they've spilled 24 times, "contaminating rivers with more than 300 million gallons of sludge; two times the amount released in BP's Gulf oil disaster." When coal is burned in power plants, emissions pour out from their smoke stacks. If you happen to live near a power plant, expect to get cancer. The epidemiology shows clusters of autistic children in such neighborhoods.
The emissions drift across the whole country. Forty-eight states have issued warnings -- 'Don't eat the fish you catch in our streams!' The oceans have been polluted with mercury from coal-fired power plants, so don't eat tuna more than once a week either.

Burning coal pollutes the whole earth. It's one of the top producers of CO2 emissions and climate change.

The coal companies, the railroads -- which get 40% of the their business from shipping coal -- and power companies all join in reciting the same litany. Coal is necessary. Stop us and you won't have electricity. Slow us down, and it'll be like living in Baghdad, where the lights only come on half a day. We need it to be mined as cheaply as possible. Environmental regulations will make your electric bill go up. Coal mining creates jobs and prosperity. Stop it, slow it, regulate it, enforce the rules, any of that nasty stuff at all, will bring the American economy to it's knees - alright, it's already on it's knees, face down in the mud -- and cost jobs!!! Jobs being the triple exclamation point in all the industry's arguments.
None of this, of course, is true.
Maria Gunnoe, Robert Kennedy, Jr., and all the people with them who are trying to stop Massey are not merely saying, "No."

They have an alternative plan. The ridge they are trying to save is a prime spot for wind power. More jobs. Safer, healthier jobs. More taxes paid to the county. Less destruction to the environment. No harm to the air and water.

It should be a national issue. Not just a local issue.

If we think of wind as a natural resource, Kennedy says, "the United States is the Saudi Arabia of wind." The wind power we could generate from just three states -- North Dakota, Montana, and Texas -- could supply the power needs of the whole country. Even if we all switch to electric cars. In order to do that, we have to rebuild our electric grid.

Getting there is expensive. But once you do it, if we do it, it means essentially free electric power... well, as long as the winds shall blow. Instead of pouring money down the pipeline to Saudi Arabia or tearing apart the earth and poisoning our children to do it.

Plus it actually does create jobs. Coal mining does not.

That's should be an easy sell. A no brainer.

But it's not.

Because Big Coal has Big Money. The mining, railroad, and coal based energy companies have spent $1.5 billion in the last decade on lobbying and campaign contributions. Joe Manchin, governor of West Virginia from 2005-2010, shows up as owned and operated by the mine owners. He's moved to become the Senator from West Virginia. The Bush Administration's #1 constituency was the energy business, oil and coal. Expect the new Republican majority to try to destroy the forty year old Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, to defund, and declaw the EPA. After all, it was energy companies that funded their campaigns.
Who wins?

Ana: There are many images that will stay with me; the coal miners fighting the protesters, trying to protect the jobs that are killing them by defending the companies that pay them as little as possible and destroy the futures of their communities. The lakes of toxic sludge holding billions of gallons of harmful chemicals, sometimes even radioactive, in every state in this country. The faces of men making billions of dollars from the deaths of people and the steady decline of environmental health in this country and the world. The images that will stay with me the most though, are the faces of the people willing to stand up to big companies, corrupt politicians, and a world that often seems like it isn't listening.

Watch the film to be outraged. And to be inspired.

Yes, ordinary citizens can make a difference.

No, it's not just one battle. It's a war. Big money, greed, and rapacity is on one side. Sanity, decency, and the future of America, is on the other.

They say in Harlan County,
there are no neutrals there...
Don't scab for the bosses,
don't listen to their lies,
us poor folks haven't got a chance,
unless we organize...
Which side are you on, boys.
Which side are you on.