Menus Subscribe Search

The Last Mountain: A Scary Movie About … Coal

• June 02, 2011 • 4:00 AM

In his film review of “The Last Mountain,” Lewis Beale describes a horror flick about environmental degradation and predatory capitalism.

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.”
[class name="dont_print_this"]

Moving Pictures

MOVING PICTURES
An occasional look at movies that matter.

[/class]
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.”

Sign up for the free Miller-McCune.com e-newsletter.

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Lewis Beale
Lewis Beale is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Newsday and many other publications.

More From Lewis Beale

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 31 • 4:00 PM

Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide

With stores near military bases across the country, the retailer USA Discounters offers easy credit to service members. But when those loans go bad, the company uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file suits by the thousands.


July 31 • 2:00 PM

A New York State of Fracking

Court cases. A governor’s moratorium. Pending health study. A quick guide to the state of fracking in New York.


July 31 • 11:17 AM

How California Could Power Itself Using Nothing but Renewables

We don’t need fossil fuels.


July 31 • 8:00 AM

Should Athletes Train Their Memories?

Sure, but it probably won’t help.


July 31 • 6:00 AM

Universal Basic Income: Something We Can All Agree on?

According to Almaz Zelleke, it’s not a crazy thought.


July 31 • 4:00 AM

Medical Dramas Produce Misinformed, Fatalistic Viewers

New research suggests TV doctor dramas leave viewers with skewed impressions of important health-related topics.


July 30 • 4:00 PM

Still the World’s Top Military Spender

Although declining in real terms, the United States’ military budget remains substantial and a huge drain on our public resources.



July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly 10 times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.