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 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



July 24 • 9:48 AM

The People Who Are Scared of Dogs

While more people fear snakes or spiders, with dogs everywhere, cynophobia makes everyday public life a constant challenge.


July 24 • 8:00 AM

Newton’s Needle: On Scientific Self-Experimentation

It is all too easy to treat science as a platform that allows the observer to hover over the messiness of life, unobserved and untouched. But by remembering the role of the body in science, perhaps we humanize it as well.


July 24 • 6:00 AM

Commercializing the Counterculture: How the Summer Music Festival Went Mainstream

With painted Volkswagen buses, talk of “free love,” and other reminders of the Woodstock era replaced by advertising and corporate sponsorships, hippie culture may be dying, but a new subculture—a sort of purgatory between hipster and hippie—is on the rise.


July 24 • 5:00 AM

In Praise of Our Short Attention Spans

Maybe there’s a good reason why it seems like there’s been a decline in our our ability to concentrate for a prolonged period of time.


July 24 • 4:00 AM

How Stereotypes Take Shape

New research from Scotland finds they’re an unfortunate product of the way we process and share information.


July 23 • 4:00 PM

Who Doesn’t Like Atheists?

The Pew Research Center asked Americans of varying religious affiliations how they felt about each other.


July 23 • 2:00 PM

We Need to Start Tracking Patient Harm and Medical Mistakes Now

Top patient-safety experts call on Congress to step in and, among other steps, give the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wider responsibility for measuring medical mistakes.


July 23 • 12:19 PM

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.


July 23 • 12:00 PM

Why Do We Love the ‘Kim Kardashian: Hollywood’ Game?

It’s easy enough to turn yourself into a virtual celebrity, complete with fame and mansions—but it will likely cost you.


July 23 • 11:49 AM

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.


July 23 • 10:00 AM

Outing the Death-Drug Distributors

Calling all hackers: It’s time to go Assange on capital punishment.


July 23 • 8:00 AM

The Surprising Appeal of Products That Require Effort to Use

New research finds they enable consumers to re-establish a feeling that they’re in control of their lives.



July 23 • 6:00 AM

How the Other Half Lifts: What Your Workout Says About Your Social Class

Why can’t triathletes and weightlifters get along?


July 23 • 5:02 AM

Battle of the Public Intellectuals: Edward Glaeser vs. Richard Florida

On gentrification and housing costs.


July 23 • 4:00 AM

Our Fear of Immigrants

Why did a group of fourth graders rally in support of an undocumented classmate while the citizens of Murrieta, California, tried to stop immigrant children from entering their town?


July 22 • 4:00 PM

Can Meditation Really Slow Aging?

Is there real science in the spiritualism of meditation? Jo Marchant meets a Nobel Prize-winner who thinks so.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

How a CEO’s Fiery Battle Speeches Can Shape Ethical Behavior

CEO war speech might inspire ethical decisions internally and unethical ones among competing companies.

Modern Technology Still Doesn’t Protect Americans From Deadly Landslides

No landslide monitoring or warning systems are being used to protect vulnerable communities.

The Link Between Carbs, Gut Microbes, and Colon Cancer

Reduced carb intake among mice protected them from colon cancer.

The New Weapon Against Disease-Spreading Insects Is Big Data

Computer models that pinpoint the likely locations of mosquitoes and tsetse flies are helping officials target vector control efforts.

The Big One

Today, the United States produces less than two percent of the clothing purchased by Americans. In 1990, it produced nearly 50 percent. July/August 2014

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