Forget Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, Fright Night and Final Destination 5; the season’s most horrifying film is The Last Mountain, Bill Haney’s shocking documentary indictment of Big Coal. Freddy Krueger looks like Mister Rogers next to some of the walking, talking monsters in this movie.
Chief among these is Don Blankenship, until recently chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, the third-largest coal company in the U.S. The film is told from the point of view of his victims, who include residents of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. A growing number of them have banded together in an effort to save both the only remaining peak in a decimated range and their lives.
Does that sound overly dramatic? Consider what Massey’s been up to. Employing a controversial mining technique known as mountaintop removal, the company has blown apart hundreds of Appalachian mountains and flattened more than a million acres of forest. This alone, of course, would be bad news for the local postcard industry, but turning verdant landscapes into lunar wastelands is only the beginning of Massey’s assault on the community.
The process is a reckless and perilously messy one. Lakes of toxic sludge loom above the town, close to its elementary school. Flooding due to water diversion has reduced villages to ghost towns. Heavy metals (several of which scientists interviewed by Haney claim never to have encountered previously) have been allowed to leach into well water. Poisonous silica dust from dynamite explosions coats residences and public buildings. Autism and cancer clusters have suddenly sprung up. Six neighbors living near the mining site developed brain tumors.
And let’s not forget the 29 miners killed in the explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch facility on April 5 of last year. That happened on Blankenship’s watch, as well.
All this corporate malfeasance hasn’t been ignored by government agencies. The company was cited for more than 60,000 environmental violations between 2000 and 2006 alone. The problem isn’t that the violations have gone unnoticed. It’s that they’ve gone virtually unpunished.
Enter Boogie Man No. 2. I wouldn’t have dreamed it possible to find one more reason to look back on George W. Bush’s reign with loathing, but Haney unveils a dandy. Evidently, when he was first running for president, Dubya struck a sweetheart deal with coal lobbyists. The result? He received record-breaking campaign contributions from the industry. Once he was in office, environmental regulations and safeguards were drastically weakened. When corporations such as Massey flouted what few remained, they pretty much got a pass. How is this creep not in jail yet?
The Last Mountain is not all doom and gloom, however. The locals behind the grassroots effort to run Massey out of town are an eloquent and inspiring bunch. You’ve got to admire their resilience and self-control. Not to mention their determination to build a turbine farm on a ravaged ridge.
The star here, though, is Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The attorney, author and environmental activist is shown visiting the stricken region frequently, getting to know these people and their plight, and then using his star power to advocate for them all the way to the White House. “If the American people could see this,” he says in disbelief, “there’d be a revolution in this country.”
For the sake of the people who live in Coal River Valley — and all of us, when you get right down to it — let’s hope he’s right. Thanks to Haney’s excellent film, we are about to find out.
* Running time: 95 min.
* Rated: PG