Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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

November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

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