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The Nashville Scene

'The Last Mountain': The Fight Against Coal

A talk with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and director Bill Haney about their mountaintop removal doc The Last Mountain

Stephen George

Robert Kennedy Jr. and Brother Joseph Byron discuss alternative energy. (Credit: Uncommon Productions)

NASHVILLE, TN - Right now in Tennessee, there are four active mountaintop removal mining operations and 13 such permits pending. Each of them is in East Tennessee, clustered along the Appalachian side of the Cumberland Plateau, which is home to one of the largest and most biodiverse forest systems in the world. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to find coal companies dynamiting the tops off the mountains to mine the coal seams underneath.

And yet there they are. According to LEAF, the Knoxville-based environmental advocacy group, the area is ripe for such mining — a practice maligned not only for its utter devastation of the mountains and their surrounding ecosystems, but also because companies often dump the waste (or "overburden") from the operations into the streams, rivers and valleys below. The practice has led to the burying of some 2,500 miles of streams and waterways in the Appalachian region alone.

That's why LEAF, along with Tennessee Conservation Voters and a number of smaller coalitions, has worked in recent years to push the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill that would prevent coal companies from dumping. The bill failed this year, as it has during the past several sessions. But its constituency seems to be steadily — if quietly — growing, as experts begin to view Tennessee and its coal-rich eastern counties as new territory in the fight against mountaintop removal mining.

"Certainly I think we are the next frontier for the coal companies," says Kim Sasser Hayden, executive director of Tennessee Conservation Voters.

The timing, then, of The Last Mountain — which opens Thursday, June 9, at The Belcourt — is ideal. The documentary, which prominently features environmental activist and author Robert F. Kennedy Jr., profiles a group of West Virginians who stand up to Massey Energy, the third-largest coal company in the U.S. and a dominant force in Appalachia. Massey conducts more mountaintop mining operations than any other company, is a uniquely effusive political operator, and runs all the mining in the Coal River Valley, where much of the film is set.

Last week, Kennedy and Haney — both of whom will be in Nashville for the film's opening — talked with the Scene about the story they found in West Virginia.

Speaking with author, lawyer, and activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.:

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.: The big thing that I've been thinking about is — and seeing the reaction that people have had [to the film] over the last couple of days — this is the last refuge for investigative journalism. Really, the only way to win this battle is democracy. You couldn't do this in the Berkshires, you couldn't do it in the Adirondacks. If you blew up a mountain in Colorado or New York, you'd be put in jail right away. And you'd never get a permit for anything else. People would think you're criminally insane. If you tried to bury 100 feet of the Hudson, we'd make sure you were in jail.

But they can bury 2,500 miles of rivers and streams, and blow up 500 mountains, and nothing happens because nobody finds out about it. A lot of that is the media is covering Charlie Sheen. This is a much bigger story, but nobody is covering it. It's dawned on me, as I've seen the reaction to the movie, how critical it is.

How's the reaction been? Do people have that wake-up moment? Are they appalled?

I didn't have anything to do with the production of the movie; in fact, I didn't even see the movie until it was finished.

But you've been all over the country on this issue.

I've gone all over the country to the openings and seen the press on it, and I've realized how important it is. I've been down there for 27 years watching this, and gotten used to the fact that government is in the pocket of these polluters. Today a reporter asked me, "Why doesn't the government do something about this? How can the government let this happen?" And you know, I have to go back 20 years to when I was thinking like that. A new, refreshing dose of indignation and outrage is exactly what this needs.

What do you mean you have to go back 20 years feel like that?

I have to go back 20 years to when I was still thinking that, "Oh yeah, this is a crime and government will fix it if you just talk to them logically." This is what I learned in civics class and what my family believed in. I've spent 27 years trying to make government try to do its job of stopping polluters, and I'm used to the fact that money rules the roost, and logic and democracy and public health are quickly subverted when there's money to be made. It's just refreshing for me to hear somebody who still believes in those ideals. That's what we found in West Virginia, too. This community was radicalized because they believe in democracy and believe in America and believe that government was there to serve them, and that corporations were a beneficent force. And when they found out the whole game was rigged against them, instead of just lying down and taking it, they fought back.

How has civil disobedience changed the discourse — if it has — in these smaller communities when it comes to coal?

It's the last thing we've got left. The press has been subverted. The judiciary has been subverted. The agencies have been captured. The politicians have been corrupted. Transparency has disappeared, and the zoning laws have been taken — local democracy has been taken away from them. When that happens, the only thing you have left is civil disobedience. They're doing it effectively.

There have been 2,500 people now arrested [in West Virginia]. That's four times the number of people who participated in the Selma march.

How do you get your hooks into a politician or into one of these corporations and try to move something?

We have to rely on some level the same as the civil rights marchers did, on federal laws. Because the state political landscapes are so completely dominated by the power of Massey. I debated Don Blankenship a year ago — I did a televised debate with him. During that debate I asked him, "Is it possible for your company to make a profit without breaking the law?" He said no, it's not. At the time, I was asking specifically about his record of pollution — during the previous five years, Massey had violated the Clean Water Act 67,000 times, and then tens of thousands of violations of mining laws and safety laws and labor laws, etc. That is an admission that this is a criminal enterprise.

Their whole business plan is based upon their capacity to violate the laws and get away with it, to dismantle the agencies in West Virginia who are there to protect the public and enforce the laws. In some ways, we really need in this case the federal government.

Why is it necessary for outsiders to come to Appalachia and help stop this?

Massey owns West Virginia, and so West Virginia can't save itself. Massey is an out-of-state company — it's not a West Virginia company, and a large part of its workforce (its very small workforce in the state) is from out of state, too. But the communities that are being destroyed — two-thirds of the people of West Virginia by every poll oppose mountaintop removal, but not a single politician in the state [does]. That's because, one suspects, of the huge donations and just the political power wielded by King Coal.

In Crimes Against Nature, you laid out pretty clearly how former President Bush took apart the entire regulatory apparatus we had for coal. Where are we now in the Obama administration?

I think Lisa Jackson is probably the best EPA administrator we've ever had, and she understands the importance of stopping mountaintop removal and transitioning into a renewable energy economy. But President Obama's got a big plate in front of him, so he doesn't always do exactly what we want him to do. Sometimes I think he has to choke out the phrase "clean coal." But he's got 22 coal-state senators, many of whom are Democrats. He needs those guys to pass his national health care and end two wars and save the auto companies and do the other things he's trying to do. So sometimes he has to do things we don't want him to do. They could do a lot better, particularly on the larger issues of ending the subsidies to coal and helping our country transition to clean energy.

Does coal have to be a part of the future?

No, absolutely not. And it won't be part of the future. It's going to be driven out by market forces anyway. Right now, one of the companies I'm involved with is building a solar-thermal plant in the Mojave Desert. We're building it for the same price you build a coal plant, but once you build it, it's free energy forever. So if the peak cost of coal is the fuel cost after you build the plant, we're building this — it's one of the biggest power plants ever built. ... Once you build a coal plant, your big costs are just beginning.

And with film director Bill Haney:

Tell me about where your interest started in mountaintop removal mining and following what's happening in Coal River Valley.

I was fertile ground for this story, because I began my work life 30 years ago starting a company designing air pollution control systems for power plants. I knew a bit about the pollution caused by burning coal.

And stories about ordinary people who circumstance compels to do extraordinary things, kind of inspiring stories about ordinary Americans, that's the kind of story that I find moving myself. This story of this extraordinary community on the top of Coal River Mountain who decide to take a stand and propose an energy future for all of us that would be brighter, healthier, more responsible and more job-creating — and they're doing it despite the tension and threats and stress they have to endure by suggesting a new way in an environment of people who are really deeply invested in the old way. Their story was really moving to me.


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Then I basically heard Bobby Kennedy talk about a book I'd read, Crimes Against Nature, that he'd written, in which he linked with great effect the destruction of our democratic process that's required to enable the kind of environmental devastation that you see in our film. That sort of brought the threads together: a story of ordinary Americans who are fighting not just for our energy future and their community but are also fighting for our democracy.

What did you find when you went [to West Virginia], in terms of the difficulties this community is facing fighting against that old way of thinking?

The tension down there is palpable. All of the folks featured in our tale not only will find themselves arrested by the police or harassed, but describe a kind of environment of personal threats, where the very mining companies that come to Wall Street and say, "What we're going to do is use explosives and mechanization to get rid of all the workers." And thus, the number of jobs in West Virginia mining coal has gone from 150,000 to 15,000 in the last 50 years, even as production soars. But when they're down in West Virginia, while they point to the kinds of activists that you see in our movie, they say, "Those are the people who are stealing your jobs." And they say that to miners who understandably feel economically vulnerable in our treacherous times, and who live in communities that the explosives [used in the mining] have rendered poor ground for creating alternative employment, because who wants to move in and start a company in a place where there's the explosive power of Hiroshima being dropped every week.

As you point out in the film, it's a very oversimplified way of addressing this. What are people doing there to move beyond the [false dichotomy of], you're stealing our jobs versus you're destroying our homeplace?

Wow, you're into the rhythms of the language. Your homeplace — that's what they call it.

Ha. I'm from Kentucky. I've spent a lot of time in Eastern Kentucky reporting on coal issues.

Then it's natural for you. And of course it's the exact same thing. So they point out first the facts, and the facts are that both Kentucky and West Virginia have done studies, and the coal industry creates more economic destruction in the state than it creates economic benefit. That's just a fact. And they point out the fact that with federal subsidies and health consequences that have been added up now by a professor at Harvard named Paul Epstein, the total cost of the coal industry to the rest of us each year is more than $350 billion a year.

Most of all, what they do — and I think this is so extraordinary, and it's what makes this story so wonderful for me — these are folks who didn't just find out what they were against, they found out what they were for. And they've been willing to fight for it. They point out that they can provide better economic development for their community and long-term power to the United States by building wind farms on the mountain ridges that surround them instead of destroying them to get the coal inside. In that sense, they begin to point to an energy future that's much more compelling for all of us. They start teaching us things we didn't know. For example, did you know that there's more jobs in the wind industry today in America — despite all the subsidies for coal — than there are in coal mining? There are. Or did you know that last year, for the first time in American history, we built more renewable power than all the historic power sources combined? There was more wind, solar and geothermal constructed in America last year than natural gas, coal, oil and nuke combined.

They've begun asking a question that makes so much sense, which is: In a country that has long had such extraordinary capacity, how can the 21st century answer for our energy needs be the 17th century notion of burning rocks?

One of the problems that seems to come up over and over again is how you get people who are not living in the hollows of Appalachia to notice. I'm watching your film and thinking, Massey has 67,000 violations [of the Clean Water Act] in West Virginia and they ended up settling with the EPA for $20 million? How does that go unnoticed?

I think that basically it's a subversion of democratic process. It's been the ghettoization of Appalachia. I live in Boston, and several years ago I wanted to build an extension — I wanted to expand the footprint of my bathroom by six inches. I wanted to put a new window that was six inches wider. And because I was within 100 feet of a skunk cabbage that was itself within 50 feet of an intermittent stream the size of the palm of your hand, I needed 12 months of permitting, three erosion-control barriers, two soil-protection fences. That's in case some of the dirt 150 feet away from the stream might flow in the air near the stream.

So the notion that someone could fill in 2,500 miles of streams — could you see that happening in the Potomac? Or in the Sierras? Or how about the Hudson River, if somebody wanted to fill in the Hudson River? But somehow, these things have been allowed in Appalachia in some extraordinary way. They have the same federal laws I'm dealing with. I'm dealing with the Federal Rivers [and Harbors] Act when I'm in my backyard in Boston. The idea that if somebody wanted to take down 500 mountains in the Sierras, would the people of California tolerate that? Or in the Rockies? Or in the Adirondacks? How is this actually happening in Appalachia?

I think part of what has happened is it's the ghettoization. The industry pumps out this propaganda about clean-coal technology and coal is what keeps the lights on, and they sort of imply that if we don't burn coal, we can't have power — which we know isn't true. And they kind of imply that the people of Appalachia really love all this stuff — there's nothing they want more than some arsenic in their drinking water. So we're kind of allowed to think that there's a bunch of longstanding hillbilly mine families who just love drinking arsenic, and if we stop them, we would lose the ability to power our iPods.

One thing that continually comes up is that we have to have a diverse energy future, and coal needs to be part of it. I'd like you to address that first. And then, one of the things I've often encountered during my time in Eastern Kentucky covering this is that people will add a nuance to what they say: We're against mountaintop removal mining, we're not against coal mining in general. Is that what you're saying with this film, or are you saying something more broad about coal mining in general?

I think the first thing I'm saying is that I'm for a level playing field in a fair market economy that complies with the law. That means that if you're going to mine, you have to actually comply with the Clean Water Act — you can't dump stuff into the rivers. You've gotta comply with the Clean Air Act. You can't engage in practices like those you see in our film that leave miners' families devastated and miners dead because you violated safety standards repeatedly and with impunity. So you have to comply with the law, first.

Second, the genuine consequences of your economic action cannot be that you've privatized the gain and publicized the losses. It can't be that you bonus a few executives while you leave a poisonous bag of stew across the land for the rest of us. If the coal industry can be economic, if it complies with the law and internalizes the genuine cost it creates for the rest of us, I've got no problem with it at all.

I went to a debate where Bobby Kennedy debated Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Coal. And Bobby asked Don really point-blank: "Don, you've had 67,000 violations just of the Clean Water Act, just in the last five years. Is it possible for you to actually mien and comply with the law?" And Don said no. Dead straight, clear-on: No. I'm not a lawyer, but it sounds like it's by definition a self-perpetuating criminal activity.

Where do you go from there, though, if they're getting these breaks? I know the Obama administration had put a stop on new permits.

I think the Obama administration seems to be saying, "Look, the Clean Water Act applies to you, too." Which seems reasonable to me in a nation built on law. We have energy alternatives. We are the Saudi Arabia of wind; three states in America could power every house in the country and every factory in the country, even if we were all driving electric cars. We are in a place where in the desert southwest of the United States, there's enough sunshine that in one 75-by-75 square mile rectangle of what is almost entirely desolate land, you could build enough solar power to power the country.

America is a country of extraordinary ingenuity and technical capacity when it pulls together as a team. So do I think we can create an energy future that doesn't rely on destroying our landscapes and poisoning our children? Absolutely. In fact, it staggers me that somehow our country's gotten to a place where we don't think we can. I think that's because the industry has had a corrupt relationship with our policymakers.

I don't think that coal needs to be a part of the energy portfolio, but if it does, if it can comply with the law and meet the genuine strictures of the market, fantastic.

Your thoughts on "clean-coal technology"?

I think it's a farce. I say that as an inventor, I say that as a guy who's built companies in this space before. First of all, clean-coal technology doesn't deal with the mining — it doesn't even pretend to. So the destructive factors of mining: not dealt with. The destructive practices of washing the coal out of the mine, where you see these hundreds of billions of gallons of sludge pits spilling toxic metals all across Appalachia — doesn't pretend to deal with that. The fact that it takes 50 percent of the rail traffic in the United States to move coal around right now? Think of the size of that. That means that this country, which is the largest grain producer in the world, the largest timber-products producer in the world, the second-largest steel producer in the world, the second-largest purchaser of automobiles, heavy machinery, consumer goods — all of the stuff that we move around the country by rail, all adds up to coal. None of that is dealt with by clean-coal technology.

Clean-coal technology, which has never worked on anything remotely resembling the scale it would be needed to, but presently as designed would take 30 percent of the power generated by a power plant to actually run, so that means you've got to build 30 percent more power plants if we're mining more coal, transporting more coal. And it doesn't deal with a lot of the volatile heavy emissions that come out of it. It's not scalable, it's not economic, it hasn't been demonstrated, it doesn't deal with most of the destructive problems of burning coal. Other than that, it's wonderful! [Laughs]

It is a sop to coal-state senators in the hope that they will start to sign on to a slightly more responsible future.

I liked the civil disobedience angle in the film, and I wonder how you get your hooks into these politicians like [West Virginia Gov.] Joe Manchin, who are just shameless sellouts to this industry. Obviously this is a group of politicians and an industry that seem impervious to shame.

I think that civil disobedience is the cornerstone of being American. We have a country because ordinary Americans a long time ago engaged in an act of civil disobedience. That's what the folks who were rallying against King George were doing when they dumped the tea into the Boston Harbor. And we have a country because ordinary Americans ultimately stood up and fought in an honorable and straightforward way, and were willing to take the consequences — on the bridges in Lexington and Concord, on Selma, during the civil war movement, the abolitionists. All were willing to stand up.

What I love about civil disobedience as a last resort is that it's open, straightforward, and you take the consequences. It's the exact opposite of this notion that the industry likes to do, which is shroud their misbehavior behind a dark wall of political donations, Potemkin treelines and purchasing of misleading advertisements. So the fact that these people are coming from all over America by the hundreds — and some of them are octogenarians; there's 92-year-old people being arrested and taken out in chains from the governor's office in this movie — and college students, and AARP members, and former Marines, and waitresses, they're leading what in many ways is the biggest civil rights movement since the '60s. I personally think it's pretty inspiring that they're standing up for our democracy in a way that Americans always have — because they've always had to.



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