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'The Last Mountain': An important film for West Virginians

Courtesy photo
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (left) debates mountaintop removal with West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney in a scene from the film, "The Last Mountain."
Read more in Coal Tattoo. Related story: Audience digs 'The Last Mountain'  CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "The Last Mountain" is far from the first movie about mountaintop removal and the other controversies that swirl around the Appalachian coal industry. It probably won't be the last.Among the long list of other documentaries, though -- most notably Mari-Lynn Evan's "Coal Country" -- the new film featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is important for West Virginians to see.Why? If for no other reason, lots of other people around the country are going to see it. And as coalfield communities struggle with the debate over mountaintop removal, the pressure of doing something about global warming, and the inevitable decline in the region's coal production, we ought to understand how outsiders view what's happening here.It's true that much of the film is probably exactly what you'd expect: Coalfield residents living with the impacts of mountaintop removal are depicted as fighting the good fight against a rich and powerful industry that is used to getting what it wants. That's pretty much the way every out-of-state journalist who has come here over the past 15 years has described the situation.It's easy to forget, though, what compelling stories there are in the lives of people like Bo Webb, a native West Virginian and former U.S. Marine who just wanted to come home and live a quiet life at his homeplace. Also, it's easy to miss the fact that mountaintop removal isn't just about damage being done to the rich and diverse natural environment of this region, but also about the growing concern from scientists that people who live near these mines are suffering from greater risks of health problems and to complete elimination of communities they call home.This film drives those stories home, especially with a touching interview of Jennifer Hall-Massey, who has watched neighbors in her community of Prenter die in a mysterious cluster of cancers residents believe are linked to coal-slurry pollution.Along the way, it provides what -- without a doubt -- is the absolute best aerial footage I've seen of mountaintop removal and close-up filming of how a dragline does its job. There are lots of powerful scenes of mountaintops being blasted away, as well.Aside from having a Kennedy as its star, "The Last Mountain" has important names behind it. One of its producers, for example, was Clara Bingham, whose family took on the coal industry's safety and environmental practices at the Courier-Journal of Louisville.
Also, the film is being strongly promoted through national media coverage tied in with this week's Blair Mountain labor march and the huge anti-mountaintop removal rally planned for Saturday near the site of the historic labor battle.The movie has problems, though. A bit of the effort to tell the story with Bobby Kennedy as the central character seems overly forced. Also, to fit into their narrative, the filmmakers ignore the fact that a major rulemaking change that helped mountaintop removal continue was started by the Clinton administration, not by George W. Bush.The film also suffers from providing little of what I'll call "the other side," for lack of a better term. Sure, they included a set-up scene where Bobby Kennedy debates mountaintop removal with West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney. In that format, though, against someone as skilled as Kennedy, the scene is almost unfair to Raney.It might have been better if the film included a scene like the one in "Talking Dirt," one of a series of new plays called "Higher Ground," about Appalachian struggles. The play, as The New York Times explained a few weeks ago, "offers an empathetic twist on its otherwise gloomy view of strip mining" with a talk between two high school friends, Beth and Roger."While Beth, who has been offered a scholarship, opposes strip mining, Roger, a young miner, shows her that her privileged status gives her the luxury to choose," the Times said. "'There wasn't anybody standing there offering me a scholarship when I graduated high school,' he tells her."
Overall, "The Last Mountain" is further proof of what the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., warned us about when he said mountaintop removal has a "diminishing constituency" not only in Washington, but also around the country.Despite the cries from Appalachian political leaders and the public relations campaign by the coal industry, the Obama administration seems intent on enacting some much more serious limits on mountaintop removal. What's unclear is exactly what economic development Obama plans to put in the industry's place."The Last Mountain" promotes the possibility that putting wind farms on ridges like Coal River Mountain is the way out of this quandary. If so, such projects are certainly only part of the answer, and it's far from clear how far down the road a "clean energy economy" is for places like McDowell or Mingo counties.Sen. Byrd reminded us before he died last June that, "Change has been a constant throughout the history of the coal industry. West Virginians can choose to anticipate change and adapt to it, or resist and be overrun by it. One thing is clear: The time has arrived for the people of the Mountain State to think long and hard about which course they want to choose."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at or 304-348-1702.
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