Michael C. O'Connell reveals how strip-mining in West Virginia is impacting local communities in the heart of coal-mining country. While the demolition of the ancient mountain tops alters the state's natural landscape, the transportation of the mountain debris to adjacent valleys is creeping into natural resources used by area residents. Filmed over a two-year period, Mountain Top Removal features citizen activists, such as Ed Wiley, Larry Gibson, Julia Bonds, Maria Gunnoe, and Mountain Justice Summer volunteers, in their efforts to stop the destruction of Southern Appalachia's natural landscape. The film also includes commentary from Jeff Goodell, author of Big Coal: The Dirty Secret Behind America's Energy Future, geologists Dr. William Schlesinger and Dr. Peter Taft from Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, and also Bill Raney, President of the West Virginia Coal Association.Written by
Most Americans don't think too much about coal mines until men are trapped inside them. I would venture to say that fewer know that the U.S. still derives 50% of its energy consumption from coal. I had no idea our dependence on coal was so great until I watched "Mountain Top Removal," which illuminates the relentless and creative attempts by ordinary West Virginia citizens to halt the environmental havoc waged by strip mining coal from the tops of mountains.
As illustrated in Michael C. O'Connell's straightforward and intimate documentary, the process of mountain top removal leaves the peaks looking as though they were peeled like an orange. And the fallout from washing the coal leaves toxic waste dumps called slurry ponds which not only poison the land at the bases of the mountains, but induce numerous health problems among the residents below. One story thread follows the Marsh Fork Elementary School, and the efforts to relocate the school because of its proximity to mountain top strip mining that takes place directly above it. Local citizens, beginning with the students themselves, stage fund raising drives to relocate the school, and force a meeting with West Virginia governor Joe Manchin to make him aware of the problem. Manchin acknowledges awareness of this kind of problem. It's for sure he has seen it before; although not stated here, Manchin comes from a coal mining family, and if memory serves his father was killed in a mine collapse. He has consistently supported the efforts of residents to address their grievances with mining companies, and to gain some redress, but on this day he leaves the families and students with only vague promises.
Ed Wiley, the grandfather of one of the students at Marsh Fork -- although he only looks to be about 45 -- spearheads the fund raising efforts and the march on the state capitol. He also takes his cause on the road -- walking from Marsh Fork to Washington, D.C. -- in an attempt to meet with West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd. Wiley emerges as the true hero of this narrative; he has countless facts at his fingertips and a passionate way of expressing the numerous calamities visited upon the communities in the shadow of the mines. For example, Wiley notes that only four men are required to operate the dragline excavators that make strip mining so efficient, as opposed to the 350 men it would require underground to bring in a similar haul. Once-thriving coal mining towns have dried up as a result. Boarded-up storefronts in dusty streets on a weekday afternoon tell that tale.
Massey Energy, the nation's fourth largest coal company with over $2 billion in coal reserves, is the villain here, although none of its executives are shown attempting to defend the company's practices. They don't have to: their actions speak for themselves. How many first-person accounts of the black water that flows from kitchen faucets, how many research scientists does it take to point out that the water in many parts of West Virginia is but a carrier for arsenic, lead, mercury, chromium and other toxins? You can't drink it, fish in it or swim in it. But greed is good; it certainly has been for Massey over the long haul, (although in recent years the company has run afoul of the Clean Water Act thousands of times and faces billions of dollars in fines). It is left to Bill Raney, spokesperson for the West Virginia Coal Producers Association and a local resident, Paulette Ferguson, to defend the mining industry and its flagrant disregard for the environment and the health of the people and their communities. This they do with such a dispassionate recitation of the coal companies' party line it's difficult to imagine that even they believe this canned rhetoric.
Raney and Ferguson would probably argue that things are better now than ever. There was a time, tourists in an abandoned underground mine are told, when the mining companies operated like fiefdoms. Decades ago miners and their families lived in company built housing; they shopped at company owned stores; their rent and grocery bills came out of their pay. The mining companies even issued their own currency! Nowadays they merely force family members to sign release forms before they can go visit family cemeteries on land bought up by the coal companies. For shame.
"Mountain Top Removal" could easily have been a polemic, but O'Connell merely shows the viewer aerial shots of the decapitated mountains, and allows the eloquent, resilient people of Marsh Fork to tell their own stories. The facts of their sad stories will make you angry, but their determination to fight to preserve the land, the environment, and their very lives and those of their children will leave you with nothing but admiration.
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