“The Last Mountain”: The people versus Massey Energy

Movie Review: “The Last Mountain”

Written by Bill Haney & Peter Rhodes. Directed by Bill Haney

95 minutes, 2011, Rated PG, www.thelastmountainmovie.com

Featuring: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bo Webb, Maria Gunnoe, Michael Shnayerson, Joe Lovett, Bill Raney, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Jennifer Hall-Massey, Ed Wiley, Chuck Nelson and Don Blankenship

George W. Bush referred to his 2000 “win” as “a coal-fired victory,” reflecting the enormous corporate investment in his campaign. He promptly filled 100 top environmental posts with industry lobbyists. But Democratic Senator and former Governor Joe Manchin of West Virginia is hardly any better. Some of the most dedicated and informed activism West Virginia has ever seen has been aimed at the pro-coal WV Department of Environmental Protection, which helped the industry to evade compliance at every turn.

The Last Mountain is a new documentary on mountaintop removal, a look at the environmental, climate, and health dangers -and unsafe working conditions – created by the coal industry. It celebrates the citizen-activists of the Coal River Mountain Valley and what they are doing to ensure a better way of life for their rural towns. 

In April 2010, the Upper Big Branch Mine exploded in West Virginia, killing 29 miners. Now it’s been revealed that Massey Energy kept two sets of books on that mine’s safety issues . Massey mines are an excellent example of industry and government collusion: Thousands of citations for health and safety, and a handful of puny fines that are just the cost of doing business.

One third of all coal produced in the United States comes from Appalachia. Half of all U.S. electricity is coal energy. Half of all freight shipped by train is coal. Coal is at the core of the global warming crisis. There are 600 coal-fired power plants across America. Their mercury emissions cover the nation. In 48 states, one can’t eat the fish due to mercury poisoning. It’s no surprise to see coal defenders protecting their privileged position when coal controls America’s economy. “Coal’s mean, coal’s cruel, and coal kills,” says activist resident Maria Gunnoe.

Beautiful aerial cinematography shows an Eden-like Appalachia. But up close, it’s a different story. Robert Kennedy, Jr., an outspoken and passionate environmental activist, says, “We are cutting down the Appalachian Mountains literally,” with 500 mountaintops already destroyed, a million acres of forest gone, contaminated wells and ruined springs in centuries-old townships, ancient riverbeds now a “stream substitute” (read: dry bed of rocks). Maria Gunnoe says of the explosions: “You feel like you’re under attack.” 

In the search for coal, Massey has buried 2000 miles of streams and left once densely wooded mountains bare. Runoff has nowhere to go except to flood the valley, which happens every time it rains. Appalachia at flood tide looks like New Orleans after Katrina. Coal likes to refer to such results as acts of God, but the locals know that God had nothing to do with it. 

Corporations like Massey are essentially privatizing the “commons” (air, water, sea rights) that the signing of the Magna Carta guaranteed a thousand years ago. Corporate valuation of profit over life has led to arsenic, mercury, and lead ingestion, asthma, silicosis, cancer, brain damage, autism possibly caused by heavy metal contamination, and many cases of premature death.  

RFK, Sr. spoke in his day about coal’s strategy of “permanently impoverishing these communities.” RFK, Jr. remembers him talking about coal companies “breaking the unions.” Indeed, Massey systematically took on the United Mine Workers by closing union mines and then reopening with non-union labor. One worker recalls having once worked in a union mine, and now not: It was “like walking from daylight into darkness.” Don Blankenship, now-retired CEO of Massey Energy, had the chutzpah to say, at his company-sponsored Labor Day event, “Environmental extremists are endangering American labor [!]” Meanwhile, Massey has increased production by 140% while eliminating 40,000 jobs. 

RFK, Jr. calls the citizen-activists “heroes of American democracy,” answering the $1 billion that coal utilities have spent on politicians and lobbyists over the past decade. Sadly, the film shows groups of Massey miners joining together to demand that the activists “go home.” The critical need for jobs (repeat: Jobs!) has made these coal miners and communities vulnerable to the message that coal is good for them and for America. 

The Last Mountain presents a clear picture of mountaintop removal’s devastating impact, but it is not only about the dangers. It also presents a workable, win-win solution by laying out the facts and figures on renewable wind energy. Clearly our country needs a new national renewable power grid. The Province of Ontario will replace all its old coal-fired plants with renewable energy by 2014, showing what a little foresight and commitment can quickly accomplish, given the political will. 

A must-see! Readers will find www.thelastmountainmovie.com an informative and helpful site. 



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.