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Demolishing Appalachia

Debra McCown

A Wise County, Va., woman is among the stars of a controversial film on mountaintop removal mining that premieres today in Charleston, W.Va.

The film, “Coal Country,” looks at the negative effects of surface coal mining on Appalachian residents and communities in four states. Kathy Selvage, a Wise County activist opposed to mining practices used in the region, is among those featured in the documentary.

“I believe our hope is it brings international exposure to that and also that it furthers a conversation about where we go in energy policy in this country,” Selvage said of the film. “I hope it opens people’s minds to the problems that are the side effects of mountaintop removal coal mining. I hope it opens people’s hearts to the suffering that goes on in communities where this mining occurs right where people live.”

After the premiere in Charleston, more screenings are planned at film festivals and in major cities such as New York and Los Angeles, said the film’s executive producer, Mari-Lynn Evans. The 90-minute movie also will be shown in thousands of smaller screenings around the country – including Bristol and Wise County, Va. – before it begins airing on public television.

Evans said she has worked to tell both sides of the story.

Barbara Altizer, executive director of the Eastern Coal Council, offered the same response she said she has given regarding other coal-related films in recent years: Viewer beware.

Evans, a West Virginia native, said she sought to put a face on those who are negatively affected by mining, but also on the coal industry.

“At the point we started working on this film four years ago, I had no idea it was going to come out in the most contentious, critical time in the history of the coalfields, but it has,” Evans said. “People need to realize what these coalfield residents are saying, and people also need to listen to these miners who say we
have three options: We work for coal; we work for a fast-food restaurant; or we leave the state. Because it’s a mono-economy, and that mono-economy has enslaved this culture of people.”

Altizer said that after looking at the film’s Web site she doesn’t think it really shows both sides of the story.

She said people need to look at the whole process of mining and reclamation – not just the way a site looks at a point in time – and consider that extensive state and federal regulations govern the process. She estimates that only 1 percent of the region’s population has been seriously affected in a negative way by surface mining.

“Anything you build you’ve got to mess up,” Altizer said, comparing a surface mine to a house under construction.

“It [mining] has provided areas for home sites, airports, shopping strips, golf courses … there’s lots of positive things out of it, and you just never ever get the opportunity to read about that. And when people see this movie, they’re going to be less informed about our industry.”

Altizer also said that in Southwest Virginia, where coal severance tax revenue has been used for two decades to diversify the economy, real development has taken place in industries other than coal, much of it on land flattened by mining.

“I hope you … will realize they’ve shown what it looks like at the beginning, and yes it’s not very attractive, but you can realize that after it’s been reclaimed there are a lot of beneficial uses and yes it can be attractive again,” Altizer said.

Evans said a divide has come to the mountains where coal is mined, between those who want more than anything to preserve their land and those who work for the coal industry to put food on the table.

“My brother is a coal miner. My sister is a rabid environmentalist,” Evans said. “This issue is so volatile, it really is brother against brother.”

She compares the situation to a 1921 march by West Virginia coal miners demanding better working and living conditions – a protest that turned deadly after law enforcement acted against the marchers.

“ ‘People that don’t understand the past are condemned to repeat it,’ is just a phrase that keeps coming through my mind,” she said.

“Why are these people [in the Appalachian region] the poorest in the United States of America when they are living on land that is the richest in the United States of America? It seems obvious from that alone that there is a problem. ... We’ve got to figure out how Appalachia is going to flourish in a future that does not involve coal.”

Like Evans, Selvage said she doesn’t have all the answers, but she’d like to see coal subsidies diverted to green energy projects and elected leaders in Richmond and Washington working on a solution that considers the region’s economic needs along with its environmental needs.

There is a need for technology-related jobs, she said, so the sons and daughters of the coalfields have a reason to return home after college, and so America can find the power it needs without destroying its mountains.

People here don’t need charity, Selvage said, they need empowerment and the means to earn a living while protecting the land they’ve cherished for generations.

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