Winning Progressive recently had the opportunity to see a new movie called The Last Mountain, which is about the efforts of communities in West Virginia to challenge the most destructive form of coal mining – mountaintop removal mining (“MTR”). MTR involves using massive amounts of dynamite to blow off the tops of mountains to reveal coal seams that can then be mined. The resulting waste is then typically dumped into the valleys and streams next to the mountain. While the industry is supposed to reclaim the areas that they mine through MTR, they rarely do so in any sort of an effective way.
The coal industry began doing MTR mining in the 1970s, and the practice has become so prevalent in West Virginia, Kentucky, and other areas of Appalachia that dynamite with the combined explosive force of the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima is exploded in Appalachia every week. The resulting destruction is severe, with 500 mountaintops having been destroyed, more than 1 million acres of forest decimated, and 2,000 miles of streams buried. The process has also taken a high societal toll, with water sources throughout Appalachia being poisoned and communities having to be abandoned due to flooding, mudslides, and noise. And, because MTR requires far fewer workers than does less destructive forms of mining, MTR has helped the coal industry reduce the number of mining jobs in West Virginia from around 60,000 in the 1970s to 20,000 today. As a result, MTR occurs in the poorest counties in Appalachia and does virtually nothing to alleviate that poverty.
The Last Mountain provides an on-the-ground account of the havoc that MTR is wreaking. The movie focuses on three different stories in Appalachia. First, is the efforts of local activists such as Goldman Environmental Prize winner Maria Gunnoe and Lorelei Scarbro to stop notorious mining company Massey Energy from MTR mining Coal River Mountain, which is the last unmined mountain in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia. The second story focuses on the efforts of former Massey Energy contractor Ed Wiley to move his daughter’s Marsh Folk Elementary School away from a coal processing plant operated by Massey. The Last Mountain includes classic footage of a confrontation on the issue between Mr. Wiley then-West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin. The third story is about the small community of Prenter, West Virginia, where six residents have died of brain tumors and local residents have sued Massey and other coal companies for contaminating the water wells in Prenter. These stories are tied together with coverage of efforts by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Joe Lovett of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment to change the laws and policies that allow MTR to occur, and a discussion of wind power as a cleaner energy alternative to continued reliance on coal.
The Last Mountain excels in a number of ways. Most significantly, the movie helps demonstrate how truly destructive MTR is by presenting stunning aerial footage of the MTR mining process and the impacts that it has on the environment. While the statistics about MTR are important, the footage in The Last Mountain tells the story in a much more visceral and effective way than any recitation of facts can. In addition, the movie does an admirable job of showing the impacts that MTR has on local communities, rather than on just the environment. And it refutes the false jobs vs. the environment frame by demonstrating how MTR has helped the coal industry eliminate coal mining jobs and unions.
The movie does have a few weak spots. Most significantly, the movie spends a fair amount of time focused on Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and on student protesters from the direct action organization Climate Ground Zero. While they do important work highlighting the MTR issue, the movie would have been more effective keeping its focus on the folks in Appalachia who are directly impacted by and challenging MTR, rather than on activists who can too easily be stereotyped as “outside agitators.” Also, while The Last Mountain includes a good discussion of wind power as an alternative to coal, it almost entirely fails to mention the full range of other alternatives, including energy efficiency, solar, geothermal, etc. that must be ramped up in order for our society to be able to phase out coal.
Those weaknesses, however, do not detract significantly from the fact that this is a very good movie on a topic that is critically important to the future of not only Appalachia, but of our country and our climate. Click here to find a regularly updated list of the upcoming dates when the movie will be showing in a certain city. We’d urge you to see The Last Mountain, and take some friends with you. And when you are ready to help stop MTR mining and the destruction of Appalachia, click here for ways to take action.