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Civil disobedient citizens stand up against the encroachment of the coal industry. Photo: The Last Mountain.

“Coal River Mountain is our last mountain in the Coal River Valley that hasn’t been blasted to ashes.”

— Bo Webb, a military veteran, coalminer’s son, and former tool-and-die shop owner in Cleveland who moved back to his family home in the Coal River Valley of West Virginia

For the past twenty months or so I’ve curated The Local Motion Film Series for our area’s Transition group, Transition Staunton Augusta. We’ve shown a film on climate, peak oil, energy, culture, local food or economy once a month for two years and followed it up each time with a community conversation on the issues presented.

For a cinephile like me, this is pure pleasure.

I’ve screened many films at work — for review on Transition Voice — some of which I’ve also been able to show locally with the distributor’s permission. This means I’ve seen some of the finest documentaries out there, and had the good fortune to expose my small, rural community to films they might otherwise not have seen or heard about, helping move our local dialogue ahead on the issues facing us all.

And though I’m not a person who generally picks faves — I’m terribly fickle when it comes to films — there’s one film among these that in my view stands head and shoulders above the rest. That’s The Last Mountain, a new documentary about the battle for Coal River Mountain in Boone County, West Virginia.

The last mountain

Image RemovedReleased in June of this year, The Last Mountain is currently being screened across the country in small venues, prestigious showings and at special events. If I’ve earned any cred with you on my many film reviews, take my advice and don’t miss it if it’s showing in your neck of the woods.

There’s something about The Last Mountain that achieves that ultimate sweet spot a documentary can reach — more so than any other I’ve seen on the topic of mountaintop removal, and more so than most documentaries on energy in general.

I don’t say this to disparage other movies. Without a doubt blockbusters like Food Inc., and smaller budget pictures like The Greenhorns have told their stories in compelling and courageous ways, often adding new storytelling elements to the documentary form and effectively raising the ire of industry even if it seemed the filmmaker was one lone voice crying in the wilderness.

But for me, what sets The Last Mountain apart is that rare combination of factors that together achieve a new gestalt, with the potential weight of a tipping point.

David v. Goliath

Here we have a very human story of the last front in the battleground over West Virginia’s ridgelines with its store of ancient sunlight in the form of coal, and its store of ancient human history, culture and ecosystems in the Appalachian mountain region.

Real people live there, boasting generations in the same hollow, and an unrivaled love of their home-place. These are people who bear witness in the film to the march of time and the encroachment of changes, outsiders, businesses, harvesters of the local wealth. They can attest with their own eyes and the full passion of their hearts to the passing of the area from its pristine beauty to its marred and wounded state today in the wake of decades of surface coal mining, more commonly called mountaintop removal.

Maria Gunnoe, who lives in the shadow of Massey Energy’s epic coal operation has spent years fighting against the impact of the coal industry on her life and land. We’ve heard her story before, in the film Coal Country and in other activist actions.

Gunnoe’s no stranger to coal. This mother and former waitress who’s also the daughter, granddaughter and sister of coal miners now works full time for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition after years of activism on the mountaintop removal issue.

She is, effectively, the Rosa Parks of today’s environmental and energy movement — a humble woman who won’t be held down by lies and fundamental injustices and won’t be told she just has to sit in the back of the bus when it comes to her inheritance and legacy as a proud daughter of the West Virginia hills. Gunnoe doesn’t need a PhD in economy, technology, social movements, or geology to say, “I know that we live in a very intelligent country that has the ability to create energy without blowing up mountains.”

But it’s when she speaks to her faith that Gunnoe may be at her most compelling.

After a coal company spokesperson called the perilous nighttime flooding of her hollow in the wake of industrial deforestation and coal debris infill a mere “act of God,” Gunnoe countered that indeed “The Good Lord above” was present that night, but for a different reason: to sustain the life of her and her family as they clung on through harrowing hours that they thought would be their last.

She says this kind of flooding routinely happens now, all through the valley. Every time it rains. There is, after all, nothing to hold the rain back when a mountain’s summit has been removed.

Gunnoe, the 2009 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize has been unflinching in her chronicling of mountaintop removal in West Virginia, its impact on her life and her community, and its implications for our nation.

Friends of coal

Her nemesis, Massey Energy, dismisses the issue of mountaintop removal as the loud gripes of a few downstream locals who matter little in Massey’s opinion in comparison to those they employ to extract the coal. Massey argues that because coal “keeps the lights on” for you and me and provides jobs to West Virginians, that there’s nothing more to say. End of discussion.

It’s true that coal keeps the lights on in the US. Roughly 50% of our electricity comes from this dirtiest of fossil fuels.

With it we get mercury spewing into the air, the worst fossil fuel contributor to global warming, escalating asthma rates and the crime against people and the land that is the practice of mountain top removal.

But moreover, the film points out, surface mining actually decreases the number of jobs in West Virginia by substituting explosives and gigantic machinery for the work of men. Bragging about its efficiency (which translates into bigger profits for the industry and higher salaries for its CEOs) such “advancements” cut actual employment dramatically.

Massey (and other coal companys’) proud claim that they keep the lights on is about the extent of truth that pours from their lips. Indeed the fact that some workers depend on the coal industry for jobs is valid, but only to a point. And that’s where this film really kicks into high gear.

Exposing the spin that comes out of the coal industry in order to justify their claim to the privatization of national natural resources, interviewees and the filmmaker’s posted statistics reveal that with increased automation jobs have been cut in West Virginia’s coal industry, by as much as 85% over the past couple of decades:

In the last 30 years the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140% while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs.

This efficiency, along with increased profits, hasn’t stopped operations like Massey’s from going after unions to break their backs while pushing the few remaining workers even harder.

Miner Chuck Nelson, formerly a union worker, saw his pay shrink to $15 an hour when he became an non-unionized worker, while the work increased to a mandatory quota of 400 feet of coal extracted before each day’s quitting time. He says the change from union to non-union work was like, “walking from daylight into darkness.” All while then-Massey CEO Don Blankenship’s compensation went through the roof, to $33 million in annual salary, perks and benefits.

Whatever one might say about the so-called free market, it’s hard to justify whatever Blankenship was doing that added extra value, putting him at such an exponentially huge advantage over the workers who brought the coal to the surface, and therefore to the market. As Michael Shnayerson, the author of Coal River, suggests, it was little more than privatizing public property, or the Commons, that allowed this to happen.

“These coal companies are absolutely raping and stealing the land, water and air that all of us thought was ours,” says Shnayerson.

A threat to justice everywhere

The folks in the Coal River Valley are not just twisting in the wind, entirely alone. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. lent his voice and legal expertise to their cause, bearing witness to everything from the destruction of 500 mountaintops, to the paltry regulations and efforts to restore mountains once removed, to the larger issues of our relationship to The Commons. In this, he’s carried on his father’s commitment in the same area.

So maybe it’s here that I should say the film really kicks in, with Kennedy’s history lesson:

The water and the fish are not owned by the governor or the fisheries department. They’re owned by the people. Everybody has a right to use it. This is ancient law. It goes back to Roman times. It was in the Code of Justinian.

When Roman law broke down in Europe, during the Dark ages, you saw the feudal kings and the local lords privatizing the Commons. For example in England, King John said the deer, which were once a critical food source for the poor, could no longer be hunted by the poor. Only the nobility can hunt them. That’s what got them in trouble with Robin Hood. Those thefts, those privatizations of the public commons, so outraged the public that they confronted King John at Runnymeade and they forced him to sign the Magna Carta which was the beginning of constitutional democracy on our planet.

Kennedy’s inspirational telling of history, which many of us may be clueless about, is bolstered in the film by references to those ancient laws in edgy graphics hovering above panning shots of the gloriously beautiful West Virginia landscape. The words swoop in on top of the land, moving with its contours. From Roman Law the filmmaker adds: “The following belong in common to all men: Air, Flowing Water, and the Sea…”

And in reference to the Magna Carta he posts, “We decree that all shall have their ancient liberties, by land and by water.”

So, how did these things get lost, private property gain ascendance and the Commons become merely the purview of the rich and powerful and corporate?

Kennedy explains that, too.

The law in this country, up until the 1870s, was that if somebody built a factory near your home, and smoke from that factory got into your house as little as one day a year, you had an absolute right to shut down that factory because that was a violation of your property rights and of the Commons. But those laws were eroded during the Industrial Revolution by people who said, you know, “this is the future of the America, industrial growth, and we need to make it as easy as possible for industry to flourish,” so we’re going to allow people to pollute.

Moreover Kennedy reminds us that in the early 1970s, as such pollutants accumulated, sullying even non-industrial cities with the stench and horrors of industrial runoff, that 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day, the largest demonstration in American history, demanding a Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

Shared history, buried history

But for all we know, after four decades of industry PR in the mold of Thank You For Smoking, Americans today, ignorant of their own environmental and energy history, couldn’t care any less about pollution, environmental degradations, and handing our kids toxic water and air and telling them it’s their problem, not ours.

But the people in West Virginia, on the front lines of this battle, where un-Godly clusters of folks turn up with brain tumors and other cancers, remind us in this film that it doesn’t have to be this way if only we’ll sit up and pay attention to the sick infrastructure we’ve built, insisting on a better infrastructure instead.

I’m at risk of being a fawning, over-the-top total fan girl for this unequaled telling of our energy and culture story so I’d better quit while I’m ahead. You can watch the trailer here:

But it’s a perfect moment, when #OccupyWallStreet is moving forward and serious demands are coming to the forefront of our society, economy and culture to ask, What is our Commons? What nation do we want? Whose country is this? And if corporations are people, are they not subject to the same accountability that you and I would face if we just went dumping our toxic detritus onto our neighbors home?

Expertly written and directed, with attention to natural beauty, cultural heritage and the music of the region — as well as a solid legal case to challenge the assumptions made by corporations and entrenched by their political cronies — this film will not let us escape the troubling questions of our own lifestyles along with our shared decision making about those lifestyles. This is to say nothing of the frontline activists and those practicing civil disobedience who are profiled with sensitivity and compassion in the film.

My review only touches on a fraction of the myriad issues covered, from the hundreds of toxic coal slurry ponds tenuously hovering above thousands of homes (and which have leeched in the past), to pockets of cancerous kids, to the fecklessness of the EPA in enforcing violations of any number of environmental regulations (tens of thousands by Massey alone), to the way miners are exploited on the pay end but expected to talk the company line when local politics gets tense to the health effects on us all to the nature of democratic engagement by ordinary individuals and the courageous stance of civil disobedience itself. It’s this comprehensive view that makes The Last Mountain both a nail-biter, as well as a source of accessible inspiration about what kind of political and cultural life we can create, if only we will.

In the end, the people of Coal River Mountain have a plan other than coal, a clean energy plan, that they’ve tested as viable and doable and are ready to implement as long as their cause is heard. And it’s one that can be a model for us all. Imperfect perhaps. But a helluva lot better than coal by far!

Get this movie. Show it in your community. Start a conversation. Because we use 16 pounds of coal for every man, woman and child in the US today, each day. Every day.

Our moment is now. Be a part of it.

— Lindsay Curren, Transition Voice