When Trouble Floods the Valley

By Halina Schiffman-Shilo

“Our children are going to pay for our joyride.”

That was Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. in 2005, speaking about the coal industry’s destruction of West Virginia. Coal has made a few titans very rich, but it’s left many, many more Americans impoverished and sick, and our environment in shambles.

If you’ve never been to West Virginia, let me describe it for you: It’s breathtaking. From the rolling green Appalachian Mountains to valleys with rushing clear cascades and sheer rock outcroppings, it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s dream. It is also the setting of a powerful film about the coal industry. Released in 2011, “The Last Mountain” is a skillfully-crafted documentary chockfull of sexy and politically divisive topics, ranging from big industry to corporate responsibility, and environmental damage to government regulation, just to name a few. Largely filmed in Coal River Valley, a region of southern West Virginia endowed with natural beauty, biodiversity, and coal, Mountain tells the story of how the mighty coal industry is systematically and mercilessly destroying communities across West Virginia. What it reveals is shocking.

Through the film, we meet a cast of players at the forefront of the fight against the coal industry. A motley crew of environmental lawyers, community members, and a group of scrappy activists engaged in some righteous civil disobedience (in treetops!) have banded together to stop mountaintop coal removal and take on Massey Energy, a coal conglomerate recently bought out by Alpha Natural Resources.

Though streaming on Netflix and Amazon, the film is currently unavailable on television or in the theatres; I was fortunate to see it at a private screening. So for those of you who can’t see it, here’s the story.  

Mountaintop coal removal is the cheapest and perhaps most environmentally damaging way to extract coal. When coal is roughly 200 to 400 feet beneath a mountaintop, massive explosives blow its top off to expose the coal seam. One week’s worth of such mining is equal to the destructive force of an atomic bomb. The mountaintop and explosives’ debris are then moved into valleys next to the shortened mountains, creating a “valley fill.” Afterwards, giant machines are used to extract the coal.

Once extracted, the mining company, per the Surface Mining and Control and Reclamation Act, is supposed to work with the state government to replace and replant the mountaintop. But the Act is a sham. Thanks to sweeping images shot from helicopters in the film, we can see the landscape riddled with open coal seams, deep black holes that mar the otherwise verdant landscape. The few mountaintops that have been “reclaimed” look like they were filled with AstroTurf, that cheap, fake grass usually used to cover concrete when there is no field to play on.

Unnatural and unwelcoming, the reclaimed mountaintops without their old growth trees are a poor substitute for what was there before.

Aside from their majestic beauty, these trees performed an important task. They stopped topsoil erosion and stemmed rainfall from flooding the valleys and endangering the lives of those who live there.

One local activist, Maria Gunnoe, is a driving force in the fight to stop mountaintop coal removal. She is featured throughout the film and describes a flood that nearly destroyed her home and killed her family. Ms. Gunnoe’s property abuts a Massey Energy mountain that, because of mining, was left devoid of the plant life it needed to absorb the heavy rainfall. Ms. Gunnoe’s story represents one of the few victories in the movie. After years of protest, she was granted a stop-work order against Massey Energy, prohibiting it from excavating any closer to her property.

If the obliteration of mountains that coexisted with, and even preceded dinosaurs isn’t quite enough to get your attention on its own, then the frightening health effects of such destruction surely will.

Jennifer Hall-Massey (no relation to Massey Energy) is a local activist from Prenter, a small community nestled in Coal River Valley. She is suing nine coal companies for groundwater contamination that, she alleges, contributed to the brain tumors that killed her brother (age 29) and five others residents, including a toddler, living within blocks of one another. In fact, a New York Times study back in 2009 found that the groundwater surrounding Ms. Hall-Massey’s home had dangerously high levels of chemicals that could “contribute to cancer and damage the kidneys and nervous system.”  More recent studies have confirmed these initial findings.

Ed Wiley is a Coal River Valley resident and former Massey Energy contractor-cum-activist. He is also the proud grandfather of a little girl whom he dotes on and lovingly calls “Possum.”  When she told him that the coal processing plant looming behind her school was making her friends sick, he took note and took action.

Mr. Wiley takes the camera crew to Possum’s school and points out the black soot, generated by the processing plant, which forms a fine film over the school buildings. The crew also follows him as he petitions former West Virginia governor Joseph Manchin III to relocate the school away from the plant. The school has since been relocated, but the cost was borne by taxpayers. Massey Energy, despite being 100 per cent responsible for the school’s need to move, only paid 20 percent of the relocation costs, thanks to its cozy relationship with politicians.

As the documentary adroitly illustrates, the relationship between campaign finance and energy policy is “close.” On both the federal and state levels, the mining industry has a strong grip on elected officials and West Virginia is no exception.

Governor Manchin is first seen in the film assuring Mr. Wiley that he’ll do everything he can to help him relocate his granddaughter’s school. Possum is standing next to her grandfather when Governor Manchin says this, and she does not look convinced. What a shrewd child she is. The next clip of Governor Manchin shows him attending what looks to be a fundraising dinner, saying to much applause that he is a “friend of coal.” Today he is under scrutiny for these “friendly” ties, but the law is on his side.

As we all know by now, after the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations have a first amendment right to free speech which includes indirect political campaign spending (hello, Political Action Committees). So it’s no wonder that despite over 60,000 regulatory violations between 2001 and 2006, Massey Energy has only paid $20 million in fines to the EPA. While that may seem like a lot, here’s some perspective: in 2009 alone, Massey Energy’s total revenue was almost $2.7 billion. Paying $20 million for five years of regulatory violations is an awfully good deal for Massey. And let’s not forget, it was a Massey mine that exploded in West Virginia in 2010, leaving 29 miners dead. The mine’s security boss received a three-year prison term for the explosion, woefully inadequate to be sure, and yet, still the longest prison term ever meted out over mine safety. Money speaks louder than justice.

The many dangers that mountaintop coal mining poses to people seriously threatens the environment as well. Water, the kind that Ms. Hall-Massey and her community drinks and bathes in, is polluted by the valley fills that clog springs. Coal sludge impoundments that, according to Mountain, have leaked over 300 million gallons of sludge into groundwater, lakes, and streams, is more than twice the amount of oil spilled in the 2010 BP disaster. Air pollution, in the form of toxic airborne particles, the kind that Possum and her classmates were breathing, is exposed when mountaintops are blasted and coal is processed. This type of pollution is virtually impossible to clean up. Once the damage is done, there’s no going back.

But even with the health effects and environmental degradation that mountaintop coal mining causes, what I found most shocking in the film was the sheer irresponsibility, lack of accountability, and outright hubris of the coal companies. That Massey Energy in particular, and most energy corporations in general, care first and foremost about maximizing their profits is understandable. Corporations are formed to make money, nothing more. But these guys flaunt their cold-heartedness; it’s almost as if they’re proud of it. When activists perched in trees to stop Massey from razing the mountaintop, Massey responded loud and clear — by blaring sirens all day, every day, to make the atmosphere unbearable in an attempt to force the protestors down. Does this sound familiar to anyone?

And the ringleader of the Massey show, former Massey Energy CEO, Don Blankenship (Hollywood screenwriters could not have created a better villain if they tried), has been ruthless. Mr. Blankenship was instrumental in decimating the labor unions in West Virginia.

If you mess with Massey, there seems to be no question but that Massey will mess with you.

I was also astounded — and saddened — by the lack of respectful and earnest communication between those for and against coal mining. Yes, we need energy. And yes, we need jobs. In fact, as the movie and local organizations point out, we can even have both. But until people walk away from the vitriolic and accusatory dialogue that plagues the energy and environmental discourse, the issue will remain gridlocked.

On the whole, though disheartening at times, Mountain does leave its audience with some hope. Marie Gunnoe and Ed Wiley represent what peaceful and persistent activism can accomplish. They are part of a network of dedicated individuals working collectively to take back the Coal River Valley. It is slow progress, but it is progress nonetheless.

So if by the end of this movie (which I urge you to see) you find yourself restless and indignant, then you should check out these organizations and get involved. Coal River Valley needs help, and as the film shows, individuals can make a difference.



4 Responses

  1. Shira says:

    Nice overview of the film!

  2. Larry Hildes says:

    As one of the lawyers for the activists shown in the film climbing the dragline and sitting in the trees, and the husband of a proud West Virginian, I am deeply impressed with Halina Schiffman-Shilo’s eloquent understanding of the people, the place and the struggles as depicted in “The Last Mountain”.

    Halina, your skill as a journalist and as an advocate really shine through. You catch the richness of the culture and decency and strenth of the people shorn of the stereotypes often inflicted on them. You also show great passion and understanding in your description of one of the most beautiful areas I know, even from the beauty of my Pacific Northwest, which I live in and love.

    Your analysis of the struggle and players is equally sharp.

    It’s clear that you’re going tro make a great lawyer!

    Please let us know if we can be of help in getting you there.

    Most Sincerely,

    Larry Hildes, Attorney at Law, and Karen Weill, Legal Assistant

  3. It was very interesting
    I am Fatemeh Ghanbari
    Attorney and university professor
    Of Iran

  4. Eileen says:

    Great review and a great explanation of the issue! For those who want to do something about this, please check out http://www.greenpnc.org to learn how we are trying to cut off the financing for this terrible practice.