Director Bill Haney’s trenchant, impassioned documentary “The Last Mountain” chronicles a David and Goliath-like confrontation in Appalachia’s Coal River Valley precipitated by the 2000 election of President Bush. Since then, Coal River Valley has been ground zero in the battle between ordinary West Virginia citizens against the rapacious ploys of Massey Energy, the nation’s third-largest coal-mining corporation.
The documentary examines how, after the Bush Administration altered the wording in the Clear Water Act, Massey Energy proceeded with a campaign to dynamite and raze the ecologically fragile Appalachian ranges for the extraction of coal. Over the ensuing decade, the company racked up 60,000 health and environmental violations. It was only in 2008 that the EPA slapped Massey with $20 million in penalties, still less than one percent of the total amount of fines the company had accumulated.
Haney profiles several of Coal River Valley’s hardiest activists. Among them, we hear from Maria Gunnoe, whose ancestral home faced severe flooding after Massey’s operations altered the neighboring mountain’s water channels, fighting for the preservation of her land and heritage; Ed Wiley, a one-time miner who’s become an advocate for the welfare of the area’s schoolchildren; the activists of Climate Ground Zero, whose civil disobedience campaigns are fraught with dangers and risks; and environmental lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who steps into the fray alongside Coal River Valley’s citizenry.
Kennedy becomes the documentary’s ad hoc narrator, a compelling, knowledgeable voice binding its Appalachian story with the larger history of American environmentalism and a convincing argument for how easily we could replace dirty fuels with cleaner alternatives, i.e. wind turbines (already installed in thousands of sites across the country).
On the one hand, we’re dejected by the enormity of the activists’ challenge: Their opponent, after all, is a multi-billion dollar corporation that enjoys the favors of a corrupt state government and preys on the desperations of poor, job-hungry communities. But their passion and tooth-and-claw resilience leave a lasting impression, and we’re encouraged by the steady successes they have won.
Haney shrewdly skewers Massey Energy, which stuffed its pockets while Coal River Valley’s miners and their families suffered. Indeed, you couldn’t dream up a more compelling portrait of villainy than the real-life collusion between Massey Energy, the Bush Administration and the state government. The whole system was and continues to be top-to-bottom rotten: Haney begins with a one valley’s endangered ecosystem, its depopulated towns, its schools threatened with toxic run-off and its communities plagued with cancers from poisoned water wells and elegantly widens his view out to a nation whose energy infrastructure is controlled by politically savvy mining companies, utilities and railroads (which profit from transporting the coal nationwide).
It’s true that watching “The Last Mountain” is partially an exercise in shock and despair. Our systemic dependence on dirty fuels is a deeply entrenched political and practical reality. But Haney’s film, thankfully, is as optimistic as it is intelligent and incisive, envisioning a future in which we can make clean and renewable energy sources readily available to all. Haney’s eloquently documentary transcends the battle being waged in West Virginia. Its realities and truths encompass all of us – not just Americans, but people everywhere whose rights, well-being and dignity are being trampled upon by the arrival of predatory corporations.
Directed by: Bill Haney
Written by: Bill Haney, Peter Rhodes
Starring: Robert Kennedy Jr., Bo Webb, Maria Gunnoe, Michael Shnayerson, Joe Lovett, Bill Raney, Dr. Allen Hershkowitz, Jennifer Hall-Massey, Ed Wiley, Chuck Nelson, Don Blankenship