If coal goes away, what will Judge Daryl Loomis give away for Christmas?
A fight for our future.
The Industrial Revolution started our society on a love affair with coal whose flame has yet to die. We can't get enough of little black rock and all the cheap power and jobs it provides. As great as it works for the uses we've put it to, though, it's a filthy substance that is devastating to the environment to burn as well as to extract from the ground. In order to maintain that cheap power and all those jobs, coal mining companies must cut drastic environmental corners, staying just this side of the law, or changing it when it comes to that, to continue lining their pockets and feeding our addiction at a price we deem fair.
The Last Mountain, a fantastic documentary by director Bill Haney (The Price of Sugar), shows us one such mining outfit, Massey Energy, in the process of their mountaintop removal operation. Mountaintop removal is one of the most destructive things we do to our environment with consequences that reach much farther than the loss of pretty landscapes. All across the Appalachian Mountains, this operation has destroyed hundreds of mountains to extract the thin layers of coal buried underneath the stone. They can produce a lot of product very cheaply, but the effects on the surrounding land are irreparable.
Bill Haney takes us to a tiny West Virginia town that sits underneath Coal River Mountain, one of the last unexploded peaks in the area. The town's livelihood is almost entirely based on coal, but the measures the company has taken have become unbearable for them. Explosions lead to massive quantities of rubble that is thrown over the side of the mountain into the land below. The extraction of coal leads to heavy metal-rich sludge washing into the rivers below. Their homes becoming polluted, they finally had enough and, with the help of lawyer and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., launched a campaign to stop Massey from blowing up Coal River Mountain.
The film is compelling the whole way through, passionately presenting its case with the help of Kennedy, the townspeople who have lived in these hills for generations, and a group of outsiders who have come to the area to aid in the fight for the mountain. It is at its best, though, when it talks about what has been done legislatively to make the illegality of mountaintop removal go away. By a subtle change in the wording of the Clean Water Act, Massey Energy and others have been allowed to go whole hog with ripping mountains to shreds and polluting the ground below. The justifications of the spokespeople for Massey Energy and the coal industry are worth watching the film for alone. The Last Mountain is an excellent documentary in every way. It is well-researched and makes its case perfectly. The film will have even more resonance for viewers who have either lived or visited the Appalachian region; to think that land of such beauty could be scoured for resources and left for dead is unthinkable, and case enough for the ceasing of mountaintop removal.
Docurama's DVD for The Last Mountain is very typical of the label. The image is an average transfer that comes from mixed sources and looks it, though the new footage is perfectly acceptable. The stereo mix is just fine, with clear dialog, but not much to distinguish it. The extra features on the disc are very good, though. Nearly an hour of valuable deleted scenes, which give a ton of additional evidence for the damage mountaintop removal, the cost-to-benefit ratio of the industry, the questionable state of the West Virginia judiciary, and much more. They may not have fit in so well with the finished film, but there is a lot of good information here. A half-hour question and answer session with Massey and Kennedy is a more pointed discussion of what is currently going on with the issue and what individuals can do to help. Public service announcements featuring Emmylou Harris, Naomi Judd, and Kathy Mattea are little more than marketing gimmicks, but they're interesting to see. A trailer and biographies close it out.
Mountaintop removal is one of the biggest environmental threats facing this nation, but it's one of the least discussed. The Last Mountain does a great job of highlighting this very serious problem in a human way, but with the help of plenty of experts, plenty of science, and the choice words of the coal industry spokespeople who drive home the point of where their priorities lie. This is a must-see documentary that quickly gets to the heart of the issue and, whether one is a staunch environmentalist or a global warming desire, it makes it pretty hard to argue for the continuation of the awful practice.
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