In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. It is a battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal.
The mining and burning of coal is at the epicenter of America’s struggle to balance its energy needs with environmental concerns. Nowhere is that concern greater than in Coal River Valley, West Virginia, where a small but passionate group of ordinary citizens are trying to stop Big Coal corporations, like Massey Energy, from continuing the devastating practice of Mountain Top Removal.
David, himself, never faced a Goliath like Big Coal.
The citizens argue the practice of dynamiting the mountain’s top off to mine the coal within pollutes the air and water, is responsible for the deaths of their neighbors and spreads pollution to other states. Yet, regardless of evidence supporting these claims, Big Coal corporations repeat the process daily in the name of profit. Massive profit allows Big Coal to wield incredible financial influence over lobbyists and government officials in both parties, rewrite environmental protection laws, avoid lawsuits and eliminate more than 40,000 mining jobs, all while claiming to be a miner’s best friend. As our energy needs increase, so does Big Coal’s control over our future. This fact and a belief that America was founded on the democratic principal that no individual or corporation owns the air and water and we all share the responsibility of protecting it, drives these patriotic citizens and their supporters from outside of Appalachia, like Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., to keep fighting.
A passionate and personal tale that honors the extraordinary power of ordinary Americans when they fight for what they believe in, THE LAST MOUNTAIN shines a light on America’s energy needs and how those needs are being supplied. It is a fight for our future that affects us all.
Written, directed and produced by Bill Haney, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and founder and president of the eco-housing start-up, Blu Homes, THE LAST MOUNTAIN was co-written and edited by Peter Rhodes and produced by Clara Bingham and Eric Grunebaum. Narrated by William Sadler, the film features original music by composer Claudio Ragazzi and includes the song “Your Control” by Crooked Fingers and Neko Case.
The central front in the battle for America’s energy future, with enormous consequences for the health and economic prospects of every citizen, is the fight for Appalachian coal. In valleys and on mountaintops throughout the heart of the eastern seaboard, the coal industry detonates the explosive power of a Hiroshima bomb each and every week, shredding timeless landscape to bring coal wealth to a few, and leaving devastated communities and poisoned water to many. With politicians siding with their corporate donors, it falls to a rag tag army of local activists to stand alone for the welfare of their families, their heritage and for a principled and sound energy future. Our film is their film – the uplifting story of the power of ordinary citizens to remake the future when they have the determination and courage to do so.
– Bill Haney
MARIA GUNNOE lives at the mouth of a narrow valley (“hollow”) in Boone County, West Virginia. Severe flooding on her property began soon after the 1,200 acre Jupiter surface mine started removing the ridge above Gunnoe’s ancestral home in 2000. The flooding continued on a regular basis and catapulted Gunnoe, a waitress and mother of two, into action. The daughter, granddaughter, and sister of coal miners, Gunnoe now works full time for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC) and has become one of Appalachia’s most potent spokespeople and persuasive community activists. In 2009, she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Maria believes that the flattening of 500 mountains in Appalachia is destroying not just the mountains but Appalachia’s communities, culture and rich heritage.
BO WEBB is a Vietnam veteran, a coal miner’s son, and a former tool-and-die shop owner in Cleveland who moved back to his family home in West Virginia in 2001. Webb’s hopes for a peaceful retirement of hunting and fishing were never realized. Instead, he found that his property, homesteaded by his family in the 1830s on the banks of the Coal River, was under siege by a coal company’s blasting of a mountain ridge right above his house. In 2004, Webb co-founded the grassroots environmental group Mountain Justice Summer. He has organized dozens of protests and acts of civil disobedience, has been arrested himself five times for his efforts to save Coal River Mountain from obliteration and feels that “Coal River Mountain stands as a symbol of what could be, and what the future of America – not just Appalachia – but what the future of America can hold.”
Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, Jr.’s reputation as a defender of the environment stems from a litany of successful lawsuits against polluters. Mr. Kennedy was named one of Time Magazine’s “Heroes for the Planet” for helping Riverkeeper lead the fight to restore the Hudson River. The group's achievement has spawned more than 200 Waterkeeper organizations on six continents. Kennedy is Chief Prosecuting Attorney for Hudson Riverkeeper, President of the Waterkeeper Alliance and Senior Attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. He is also a Professor at Pace University School of Law and co-director of the Law School’s Environmental Litigation Clinic. Kennedy has been widely published in periodicals and written several books, include the New York Times’ bestseller Crimes Against Nature (2004), which calls into question the environmental policies of the US. In 2009 Kennedy was named one of Rolling Stone's "100 Agents of Change."
JENNIFER HALL-MASSEY lives in Prenter, West Virginia, just 36 miles outside of the capital, Charleston. Her small town has lost six neighbors to brain tumors, including Hall-Massey’s 29-year-old brother. According to a Sept. 2009 New York Times article “tests showed that their well water contained toxic amounts of lead, manganese, barium and other metals that can contribute to organ failure or developmental problems.” The Times also reported that “in the eight miles surrounding Mrs. Hall-Massey’s home, coal companies have injected more than 1.9 billion gallons of coal slurry and sludge into the ground since 2004.” Hall-Massey and 264 neighbors have sued nine coal companies, accusing them of contaminating local water supplies with dangerous waste.
JOE LOVETT, founder and executive director of the Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, has fought on behalf of dozens of communities across West Virginia whose health, property, and livelihoods have been damaged and polluted by large coal companies. He has served as counsel in landmark legal cases challenging coal mining practices. Lovett's work has resulted in the contribution of millions of dollars to the West Virginia Coal Mining Special Reclamation Fund.
BILL RANEY, president of the West Virginia Coal Association which represents more than 90 percent of underground and surface coal mining production in the state, calls his constituency “practicing environmentalists” and feels that protecting jobs is his top priority. Raney says, "I’ve got people who depend on mining coal… [T]hey’re making electricity for you.”
DON BLANKENSHIP was CEO of Massey Energy until retiring on the heels of civil and criminal investigations of the company in December, 2010. Massey is the largest coal company in West Virginia, has more mountaintop removal mines across Appalachia than any other company and controls all mining in the Coal River Valley. Blankenship, who grew up in the coalfields, has succeeded in evicting the unions from Massey mines and replacing jobs with explosives and massive earth moving machines. Through mechanization over the last 30 years the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140% while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs. Blankenship led Massey throughout its expansion of mountaintop removal operations and as it suffered the worst U.S. mine disaster in 40 years, killing 29 miners in April 2010. In 2008 Massey paid the EPA $20 million, the largest fine in EPA’s history, for committing more than 60,000 environmental violations. Blankenship denies that global warming exists, and in 2009 said “I really believe that the climate is changing naturally and that the temperature for the last eight or nine years has been cooling, and that the Arctic ice has been increasing.”
ED WILEY is a former Massey Energy contractor turned activist. His granddaughter Kayla who Wiley calls “Possum,” attended Marsh Fork Elementary School in the Coal River Valley which sits next to a Massey-operated industrial coal processing plant. The Marsh Fork children and teachers have been afflicted with more than their share of respiratory ailments and cancer and Wiley’s mission has been to have the school moved away from the dangers of nearby coal toxins. He has staged numerous protests, confronted the Governor, and walked 455 miles from West Virginia to Washington, D.C. to present his grievances to the late Senator Robert Byrd.
LORELEI SCARBRO, the granddaughter, daughter, and widow of coal miners, lives in the shadow of Coal River Mountain, the last mountain left intact in the Coal River Valley. Massey Energy owns four permits to demolish and mine over 6,000 acres (10 square miles) of the mountain. But Scarbro and fellow community members at Coal River Mountain Watch propose a 328-megawatt wind farm on the high ridges of the mountain instead. The proposed wind farm would generate more long-term jobs and revenue than the mountaintop removal coal mine and provide electricity to 70,000 homes. Scarbro notes, “This county stands to gain $1.742 million dollars from this mountain annually [from a wind farm], as opposed to the $36,000 the county would earn [annually] from the mountaintop removal operation.”
David Aaron Smith
DAVID AARON SMITH, from Louisiana, is a member of Climate Ground Zero. He has participated in a number of protests including a tree-sit in January 2009 when he and two others perched themselves 60 feet up in three trees just yards from explosives, in a bid to prevent Coal River Mountain from being blown up for the coal underneath.
SUSAN BIRD’s Shippingport, Pennsylvania house is located a few miles from the Bruce Mansfield power plant, one of the nation's largest coal-fired utilities. She joined a state environmental group, PennFuture, after toxic fly ash from the power plant carpeted her neighborhood. Bird’s son is autistic and she says, “As a parent, you sit there and wonder, Did I do this? Did I cause some of this? You know, if I lived somewhere else, would he have been healthier?”