The Last Mountain is scarier than any Saw, Alien or Friday the 13th film ever made. It's a documentary about mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia, starring a group of locals whose environment is slowly turning into toxic sludge and an energy company whose methods are so predatory, they make Wall Street bankers look like acolytes of Mother Teresa.
"If someone tried to blow up a mountain in Utah or Colorado, they'd be put in jail. Why is that allowed in West Virginia?" asks environmental activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who figures prominently in the film. "It's because the public does not know it's happening," he continues. "Investigative journalism has disappeared in this country. Americans are the best entertained and least informed people on the planet. If the people really knew, they wouldn't tolerate it."
After seeing director Bill Haney's film, it will be hard for any American to justify the environmental destruction caused by our insatiable need for coal, even though coal-burning power plants provide half of the electricity used in the U.S. One-third of all that coal comes from Appalachia, although the biggest operations in the U.S. are surface mines in Wyoming.
The Last Mountain is essentially about the fight to stop Massey Energy, a company with more than 60,000 environmental violations from 2000 to 2006, from blasting the top off of Coal River Mountain in a rural area of West Virginia. The fight pits one of America's largest coal companies, the industry lobbyists it has helped install inside the EPA and a pro-coal governor against a group of local activists with little money and very little political clout. The locals see their beautiful, mountainous countryside being turned into a moonscape, and the statistical information the film continually flashes on the screen paints a portrait of a true horror show:
• Mountaintop removal mining has destroyed 500 mountains in West Virginia alone.
• It has decimated 1 million acres of forest.
• And buried 2,000 miles of streams.
• The mining has created 309 million gallons of sludge, contained in man-made lakes.
• Those lakes have been involved in numerous spills — 28 involving Massey, 24 in the last decade.
There are other offshoots of this mining process. Although coal companies are required to return the land back to its original state after a coal vein is exhausted, their efforts are minimal at best, creating gravel-strewn mountain tops prone to flooding. Rocks and dust from the blasting itself pour down on the local neighborhoods, and heavy metals from the process are seeping into the groundwater. And Massey has used its political muscle to break the miners' union, allowing them to replace men with machines. Massey itself is currently being acquired by Alpha Natural Resources Inc. Alpha is the fourth largest coal producer in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration; Massey is sixth.
The film makes clear that Massey operates practically with impunity. Although the EPA finally caught up with the company in 2007, it fined it $20 million for its numerous violations — a drop in the bucket for a multibillion-dollar corporation. And while an independent investigation recently declared the company grossly negligent in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster that killed 29 workers, history suggests Massey might get yet another slap on the wrist.
"Last year, I debated Don Blankenship [former CEO of Massey Energy] and asked if it was possible for his company to make a profit without breaking the law," says Kennedy. "And he said no. He was acknowledging this was a criminal enterprise."
But The Last Mountain is not just an anti-Massey screed. It also questions this country's commitment to renewable power sources like wind and solar, and the policies — like government subsidies for the coal industry — that make it difficult to move to an environmentally sound energy plan. The film does point out that wind farms are gaining more and more traction — supposedly the wind industry now employs as many people as coal — but it's just a drop in the bucket in terms of America's energy needs.
Ultimately, The Last Mountain is a horror story about the unholy alliance between big business and big government, with the poor citizens of places like the Coal River Valley crushed by their complicity. But although the film is a downer, Kennedy believes all is not lost.
"This has happened before in American history," he says, "where we had large corporations dismantle democracy during the Gilded Age. They owned the Congress and the Senate. But during the Progressive Era, in the beginning of our century, you had people who stood up and reclaimed democracy. There were journalists, union organizers. They put the bit in the mouths of the corporations. We've done it before, and now you see those reforms under attack. It's disheartening. Our job is to try to reconstruct democracy in this country."