As a groundbreaking clean energy counterpart to this summer’s extraordinary Food, Inc. documentary on the agribusiness, the long-awaited “Coal Country” film on the cradle-to-grave process of generating our coal-fired electricity will be hitting the theaters next week with the big bang of an ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosive.
And Big Coal ain’t happy.
Here’s the trailer:
After a year-long campaign of threats and intimidation, the Big Coal lobby plans to have its Friends of Coal sycophants out in force to picket the premiere of the film on July 11, 7pm, at La Belle Theater in the South Charleston Museum in Charleston, West Virginia.
Why is Big Coal so afeared of this documentary film by native Appalachian daughters Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller, producer and director of three-part award-winning landmark PBS series, “The Appalachians”?
If anything, Coal Country goes out of its way to include the views and voices of the Big Coal lobby and its executives, engineers and miners. This, in fact, might be why Coal Country is so compelling; far from any hackneyed agenda, Coal Country simply allows the coal industry and those affected by its mountaintop removal operations and coal-fired plants to tell their personal stories. The end result is devastating. In a methodical and deliberate fashion, Coal Country brilliantly takes viewers on a rare journey through our nation’s coal-fired electricity, from the extraction, processing, transport, and burning of coal.
Once you see the breathtaking footage by cameraman Jordan Freeman, and the unaffected and heart-rending portraits of coal mining families, you will never flick on your light switch again without thinking about Coal Country.
From the git-go, West Virginia governor and coal peddler Joe Manchin declares: “There is no replacement for coal. There might be 30 or 50 or 100 years from now, but there’s not today.”
A French engineer cheerfully proclaims, “Coal is a wonderful resource. It’s too bad it’s dirty.”
As one coal company executive coldly states, the millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives that rip through the Appalachian mountains and poison the watersheds and air of local communities daily, “might make some people uncomfortable.”
Another coal engineer playfully recalls teaching his children to refer to coal-fired plants as “cloud factories” to bring the rain, in the face of some of the highest cancer and heart disease rates in the country, and an American Lung Association study that 24,000 Americans die prematurely from coal-fired plant pollution each year.
One reclamation engineer even breaks into tears, lamenting that his dedication and work are misunderstood. He waves his hand at denuded hills, stripped of the hundreds of species of flora and fauna in one of the most diverse deciduous forests on the American continent, and lauds his planting of a small stand of sycamores. After 30 years of reclamation laws and over 1.5 million acres of clear cut and destroyed hardwood forest, he champions the novelty of his tree-planting efforts: “We’re trying them out on some mountaintop removal sites and seeing how they do.”
Whew. Big Coal doesn’t want you to see this stunning expose because they have been allowed to let the truth slip out of their mouths.
Michael Shnayerson, the author of Coal River, and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, wonderfully plays the role of an informative commentator throughout the film, delivering his facts in a no-nonsense and quiet manner. Yet, he tells an interviewer: “Nothing prepared me for the visual devastation…” of mountaintop removal.
And this is where Coal Country shines the light on one of the darkest human rights and environmental violations overseen by federal and state regulators in our times. Through a series of moving portraits of coalfield residents, the film chronicles the extraordinary and largely overlooked toll of coal mining on the lives of Appalachian residents.
In a gripping montage, Coal Country shows how those affected by mountaintop removal and coal-fired plants have emerged as the most informed and articulate spokespeople against the ravages of the out-of-state coal companies. In effect, it is the gross indifference and recklessness of Big Coal that turns former coal miners and farmers and shopkeepers into the nation’s leading coal and climate change activists–and true American heroes.
One of the film’s most illuminating moments takes place during a hearing in West Virginia over the Bush administration’s 2002 manipulation of the stream buffer rule, which allowed mining waste to be dumped into mountain streams. While a line of residents and coal company employees take their turn at the microphone, the room silences when a young man in a halting voice steps up and quietly tells the truth:
“Both sides are scared. And we’re screaming insults back and forth at each other, and I think we’re losing sight of the source of our fears. West Virginia is the poorest state in the country, and southern West Virginia is the poorest part of it. And I think people are scared that they will lose their jobs and be flipping burgers. You look out and that’s all you see. Mining and flipping burgers. And I argue that the coal company, that they want it that way. That they want that to be the only options. That is the only way they can get support on the way they treat their workers and treat our community.”
In Rock Creek, West Virginia, Goldman Prize winner Judy Bonds recounts the polarization and poisoning of the community’s watersheds. She quotes Upton Sinclair: “It is hard to get a man to understand something when his paycheck demands him not to understand.”
In eastern Kentucky, Teri Blanton describes the devastated woodlands landscape replanted with foreign grass, “which is fine for Montana, but it’s not supposed to look like that in eastern Kentucky.”
Former coal miner Chuck Nelson walks viewers through the union-busting tactics of out-of-state coal companies and mountaintop removal operations, and the rarely noticed destruction of real estate values for local coalfield residences due to coal dust and environmental ruin. Mountaintop removal, ultimately, he points out, “is not so cheap for people who have to live under these sites.”
In southwestern Virginia, Kathy Selvage describes how she went from too shy to speak in public, to her transformation as one of the most articulate activists and well-researched coal experts. Far from being politically motivated, it comes down to an “assault on our community and way of life.” Standing in the face of a pitiful reclamation efforts, she declares, “I grieve over the lost of a mountain.”
Farmer Elisa Young in Meigs County, Ohio, tours the parade of coal-fired plants along the Ohio River that have led to the highest cancer and poverty rates in the region. “I’m not a trained activist, I’m not an environmentalist. I just live in a county that is being waled on…As a farmer, I need clean air, clean soil and clean water to run a farm.”
With some spectacular photography in the background during a flyover across mountaintop removal sites, Kathy Mattea, the wondrous West Virginia country music star and granddaughter of coal miners, speaks of her support of coal mining families and the region’s dilemma.
Mattea nails the issue of mountaintop removal: “It’s not against the law,” she says, “but what if a law is unjust?”
Coal Country should be required viewing for our nation’s elected officials, and the administrators at the Council on Environmental Quality, the EPA and the Department of Interior.
In fact, Coal Country needs to be screened at the White House theatre.
Info on the West Virginia premiere is here.
A book companion, Coal Country: Rising Up Against Mountaintop Removal, will be released this fall, and edited by Silas House, Shirley Stewart Burns, and Mari-Lynn Evans.