'The Last Mountain': Mountain-lovers' worst environmental nightmare
Director Bill Haney brings mountaintop removal mining to Sundance audiences.
Thursday, January 27, 2011 - 15:01
BLAST OFF: Mountaintop removal destroys the landscape throughout Appalachia, like in this shot from Kentucky. (Photo: iLoveMountains.org/Flickr)
The most barbaric approach [to coal extraction], mountaintop removal, can only be described as blasphemous, whether or not nature is one’s only religion.
— Dr. James Hansen, "Storms for my Grandchildren"
After living in Salt Lake City most of my life, I decided I should bite the bullet this year and see some of Sundance. If you're not familiar, Sundance is a Utah-based film festival with national and even global notoriety. Every winter the streets of Park City and Salt Lake City are briefly packed with throngs of random out-of-towners, thrilled locals and scattered directors and celebrities. Excellent films are screening this year, especially in the twin veins of activism and environmentalism. Last night, I snuck out of work early and went to see "The Last Mountain."
I am familiar with the haunting narrative of mountaintop removal. The practice involves detonating the peaks of mountains, exposing hidden seams of coal, scraping the resulting rubble into a fill valley dug out adjacent, and "reclaiming" the site after extraction, usually reseeding chunks of rock (in lieu of the original layers of nourishing topsoil) with sawgrass (in lieu of generations of irreplaceable of biodiversity). The effect on regional watersheds is appalling. The process guts forests, buries streams and breaks the hearts and backbones of communities.
"The Last Mountain" focuses in on Coal River Valley, W. Va., whose last bastion against the mountaintop removal is Coal River Mountain. The movie is rich with stunning green shots of the sprawling Appalachian mountainside, juxtaposed with cruel and jarring shots of the demolished moonscape and shoddy "reclamation" of mountains victimized by MTR, transformed into rubble heaps and slabs of naked rock. The process itself is blatant in its disregard for the communities it affects. The constant blasts make the valley sound like a warzone. And indeed, a warzone is what it has become.
Covering an issue that can overwhelm a person with feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, "The Last Mountain" had a focus on nonviolent civil disobedience whose unflinching clarity deeply resonated with me personally. Activists from all over the country — recognizing that locals whose livelihood is at the mercy of Big Coal had few options in terms of resistance — travel to Appalachia to wage boots-on-the-ground battle against mountaintop removal mining.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who played a large role in the film as an advocate for Appalachian communities resisting MTR, is a successful environmental lawyer who himself served 30 days in jail after trespassing on a United States Navy base in Vieques, Puerto Rico. Kennedy emphasized that mountaintop removal is illegal, and persists because no one is enforcing the law; he reinforced, during a question and answer session that followed the film, that civil disobedience is one of the few truly effective weapons readily available to the average citizen wanting to combat this outrageous evil.
Shots of activists being carried out of the state capital during an MTR protest; of Beau Webb, a longtime advocate for environmental justice in Appalachia and an active and vocal force resisting MTR, being carted off to jail after refusing to stand down while blocking trucks from trundling up a road on the way to destroy a mountain; of tree-sitters enduring aggressive tactics by the coal companies for nine days of blast-free MTR resistance ... they were not only hopeful and reassuring, they were immediately, viscerally inspiring.
Many of my friends and loved ones remain in Utah, despite its uniquely weird political climate, to enjoy its unparalleled mountainous landscapes. I have lived in the generous bosom of the Rockies my whole life long, and I feel nothing short of holy whenever I scale their heights and ford their challenging terrain. Late last year, Peaceful Uprising road-tripped a team out to Appalachia Rising, a conference and corresponding action aimed at allying communities against MTR. My good friends and colleagues met Larry Gibson, a man who refuses to cave to Big Coal and remains on his homestead to this day, even as MTR miners destroy the land his family owned and cultivated for centuries. Photos of Gibson's home, perched on the edge of what used to be Kephart Mountain, struck an emotional blow — tough to weather and impossible to forget.
My favorite part of "The Last Mountain" was the end: the captions explained that Canada is shutting down a number of its existing coal-fired power plants and moving toward a more sustainable energy future, starting this year, and the heartening words were accompanied by riveting images of coal-fired power plants being demolished. After a nearly two-hour onslaught of agonizing footage of lush green mountains being blasted flat, it was both gratifying and inspiring to see the same cruel treatment inflicted on the criminals responsible for the war on mountains waging away in Appalachia as we speak.