“The Last Mountain” Takes a Look at Trouble in the Appalachians

Debuting as a part of the Sundance Film Festival’s Official Selection, director Bill Haney’s documentary, “The Last Mountain,” takes aim at a battle being waged deep in the valleys of the Appalachian Mountains.

The fighters, in this case, are the behemoth Big Coal industry against the ordinary citizens living next door—proving that fights that are worth fighting are not always fair.

Haney and his camera follow the true story of the underdog citizens of the Coal River Valley, West Virginia, who have become unwilling proponents in a fight that in many ways seems much bigger than they.

The culprit in this case is Massey Energy, the third largest coal company in the country, and the questionable mining techniques that they employ.  Referred to as a “mountaintop removal” process, this abrasive method involves the use of dynamite sticks and explosives to blast away the tops of mountains in order to locate layers of coal underneath and extract it.

Massey Energy seems to have everything going in their favor—with crafty wording in the Clean Water Act permitting the practice to continue.  Additionally, this highly profitable business has millions of dollars at their disposal to ensure that efforts to stop the mining will be shut down quickly.  In a world of pulled strings, Massey Energy reigns supreme with little to no accountability for their actions.

These actions have all but paralyzed the surrounding communities, leaving them nothing but wastelands with severe pollution and devastating health risks as their main concerns.

The practice of this mountaintop removal has been proven to have detrimental effects to the people living in the area. As tons and tons of mountain and (the harmful metals contained within them) are displaced, it eventually finds its way into water ways and eventually into the water that they drink, poisoning all who depend on it.  

Nearby communities have been plagued with growing cancer rates, and in some areas where the water contamination has become so high, brain tumors have been detected in both adults and children.

So where does that leave Massey Energy? After an astounding 60,000 health and safety violations slapped against them in the last decade, they remain relatively unscathed.  The monetary fines are just a small fraction—a hiccough—for the company and the huge amounts of profits that they turn. Where deeper pockets pull the strings, Massey Energy carries little to no accountability for their crimes.

In a scenario similar to that of Erin Brockovich versus Pacific Gas and Electric, Haney highlights the efforts of activists like Maria Gunnoe and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.  With the clock ticking to save their mountains, they along with other concerned citizens plead for the removal of this energy giant and their devastating tactics from their home.

 “The Last Mountain” explains that this is more than just a battle between environmentalists and big business—but a fight for a people’s health and survival.

But as the filmmakers show, it is more than just ridding the land of a certain type of evil.  It becomes a story about our society’s dependence on fossil fuels and reluctance to change.  As Kennedy, Jr. points out, these areas could become prime points to install wind turbines to help bring a cleaner burning and safer energy source to the area…if it were only done.

It is in times like these that we can show how responsible we need to be for our future. In the words of Haney, the film itself has become “the uplifting story of the power of ordinary citizens to remake the future when they have the determination and courage to do so.”

“The Last Mountain,” is currently in select theaters. For a closer look at the documentary and its message, check out their website

Photo Credit: screened.com/the-last-mountain/16-202472/

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