07/18/2011 01:36 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2011

Making Mountaintop Removal Real: The Last Mountain

It's easy for mountaintop removal to seem abstract to those who don't live in coal country. I just saw the powerful documentary The Last Mountain, about mountaintop removal, and it brings the issue home like no other portrayal that I've seen. I've followed the issue through friends active in the fight to stop this greed-driven assault on the earth, but I'd only seen the pictures on my computer, not on the large screen. The film makes it real. The landscapes of mountains blasted away for the coal seams beneath look like the moon.

There are some really stark images of what the coal companies (particularly Massey Energy) have done to West Virginia. Since they claim they're doing it for jobs, the film explores how they've systematically destroyed the unions and pursued the most destructive forms of mechanization so they could hire far fewer workers. At the peak, there were 130,000 miners just in West Virginia, mostly unionized. Now there are barely 20,000. So the coal companies have already destroyed the jobs. The film shows this powerfully, as well as Massey's repeated citation for safety violations even before the disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine killed 29 people last year. (The only thing they omitted is when Massey bought a West Virginia Supreme Court seat in a power play so blatant it inspired a John Grisham novel)

You also get a really strong sense of how MTR is destroying the forests and poisoning the water table. A woman from a tiny rural community describes a half dozen people dead or sick with brain tumors, all on drinking local well water polluted by the run-off created by the coal companies. And Last Mountain offers
an opposing vision, rooted in respect for place and land and community -- all those conservative values that the coal companies supposedly support. It shows the courage of the people fighting against it, from long-time Appalachian residents to Robert Kennedy Jr. I love their vision at the end of how those same mountains could be a base for major wind farms -- and how that would bring far more jobs and resources to the local community. If this feels like an abstract issue, go see this film.