FILM REVIEW: The Last Mountain

Film Review: The Last Mountain
by Mike Roselle

Several very good documentaries have been produced over the last decade on the tragic issue of mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Many of them have focused on the Coal River Valley, and for good reason. This is the heart of coal country, and don’t call it the coalfields, because these mountains and hollows are home to people who have for over a century been sacrificed for those black rocks and some bristle at the term. “The correct term”, says Bo Webb, a local activist and long-term resident, “is sacrifice area.”

“We are being killed for coal.”

Another reason filmmakers are attracted to the area is that Bo and the many people like him that have stood up to the coal industry, extraordinarily courageous people who fight passionately to protect their communities and their way of life. They don’t mince words.

Here on Rock Creek where I have lived for the last three years, it seems we meet a new documentary filmmaker every month or so. They make the rounds to get their story, traveling up to Kayford Mountain to interview Larry Gibson, or visiting the home of Maria Gunnoe, Bo and dozens of other members of the community here on the Coal River. And some very good documentaries have been produced. Michael O’Connell’s, Mountiantop Removal, Francine and Adams Woods’ On Coal River and Mari-Lyn Evans and Phylis Geller’s Coal Country are all films that have introduced many of these local activists to a global audience and alerted many people to what Robert Kennedy Jr has called the worst environmental crime on Earth.

In the process, some of the citizen activists, like Larry Gibson, have become well known personalities in places as far away as Europe and Australia and I’ve become used to seeing my neighbors up on the big screen. The previous films have been very personal and powerful testimony to both the urgency of the issue and the passion and courage of those who have stood up to fight it, and they have educated, inspired and motivated many thousands of people who would otherwise know little or nothing about mountaintop removal.

All this was on my mind last night as I went to an advance preview in Sylvester, West Virginia of The Last Mountain, the new film by director Bill Haney about the campaign to save Coal River Mountain I wondered, “ How will this film be different? ”

It didn’t take too long before the answer to that question became very clear. Bobby Kennedy, Jr. Long before anyone had climbed up on Kayford Mountain to visit Larry, or had met Judy Bonds or Maria Gunnoe, Robert Kennedy Senior had been trying to end strip mining in Appalachia. And, as the film shows, young Robert was concerned about the environment from early on, becoming an activist at the age of 8 and monkey wrenching a housing development by age 11.

Since then he has litigated for clean water as an attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), spent 30 days in jail for protesting the bombing on Vieques Island, off the island of Puerto Rico, by the US Air Force and has represented the Riverkeepers, a large grassroots network that works to clean up our waterways, and authored a New York Times’ bestseller Crimes Against Nature (2004). Over the years he was also a frequent visitor to the Coal River Valley and has been a tireless advocate for the abolition of mountain top removal.

Sundance 2011 – Images by antrim caskey

Photographs from the Sundance 2011 Film Festival in Park City, Utah where The Last Mountain made its world premiere along with 17 other documentaries admitted to this year’s festival.

This beautifully edited film allows us to get to know Kennedy much better, and he helps us get to know Coal River Mountain, and to understand why it is so important. He argues that coal companies like Massey Energy are not only destroying the mountains, they are breaking the law, and that the local politicians look the other way because of the millions of dollars in cash that the coal industry on elections. Of course, many of us know all this, but the The Last Mountain escorts the viewer step by step on how we got here, including West Virginia’s critical support of President George W Bush and the subsequent appointment of J. Steven Griles to the Department of the Interior, a small but important detail that illustrates the treachery unleashed upon us of late.

The Last Mountain not only informs us, The Last Mountain challenges us all to get involved. Robert Kennedy, Jr is drawing a line in the sand and asking us to stand with him as he advocates for non-violent civil disobedience to save Coal River Mountain. The film includes many dramatic scenes from protests by Coal River Mountain Watch, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and Climate Ground Zero.

Regular visitors to this site do not need to be reminded of the costs of mountain top removal and the devastation it wreaks. There is no need to quote all of the horrible statistics; 500 mountains destroyed; thousands of miles of creeks buried; two million pounds of explosives detonated each day and so on. Yet even if you already know this, this film puts all that information out in a way that will still make you see Coal River Mountain in a new light. It also takes a larger look at the coal industry, from the processing, shipping, and burning to storing the fly ash and lays out the true costs of using coal to make electricity.

The Last Mountain
also examines the alternative to burning coal for electricity, pointing out that wind power could replace all of that electricity as Kennedy takes us on a virtual tour of the proposed Coal River Mountain Wind Farm that over its lifetime would not only produce more electricity cheaper, but provide more tax money to the county than does coal mining.

Seeing Bobby Kennedy’s commitment to saving this last mountain gave me new hope that this battle can still be won. As Bo Webb states in the film, “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.” Whether you have ever heard of mountain top removal or not, and even if you thought you knew everything about coal mining and the global campaign to stop it, this movie will enrage and astound you with its graphic depiction of the violent devastation of the land and the people of Appalachia.

Hopefully it will also inspire you to join the movement to stop this madness. In this important and beautifully crafted film, director Bill Haney has made a strong case that the destruction of these mountains and these communities is the worst environmental crime in America, and that saving Coal River Mountain is about much more than saving one mountain.

The Last Mountain opens in select theaters June 3, 2011
For more information go to

24 Jobs

[singlepic id=68 w=300 float=right template=caption]Pigeonroost Hollow, W.Va. — The coal industry is always talking about jobs as if that is the only important issue in Appalachia. For the sake of these jobs, we must sacrifice the mountains and streams, and we must poison the air and water, and destroy the local communities? What is the true cost of these jobs and what is the real impact of these jobs on Appalachian communities and the Appalachian environment?

On January 13, 2011, the US Environmental Protection Agency vetoed the Clean Water Act Section 404 “dredge-and-fill permit” for the Spruce No. 1 Mine in Logan County, West Virginia. The Spruce No. 1 Mine would have been the largest mountaintop removal (MTR) mine in US history. Predictably, the coal industry decried the loss of the 250 jobs the mine would have provided over its 15-year lifespan. The EPA, they claimed, had declared war on coal, and war on West Virginia’s economy.

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The Spruce No. 1 Mine has been the most contested coal mine in US history. It would impact 3,113 acres of Appalachian hardwood forests, create five massive valley fills, permanently burying six miles of mountain headwater streams under hundreds of feet of toxic mine spoils, and directly impact another ten miles of streams, all to mine 44 million tons of coal. The Spruce No. 1 Mine has been in operation since 2007, and currently employs 24 people or about a tenth of the total proposed workforce, and has an annual production of about 600,000 tons of coal.

To put this in perspective, last year the US burned about 965 million tons of coal to make electricity; at this rate the Spruce mine would provide less than one month’s worth of electricity for the nation over its entire 15-year lifespan.

Environmental groups have opposed the Spruce No. 1 Mine since it was first proposed as an extension of Arch Coal’s Dal-Tex Mine in 1997.  The original plan would have buried more than 10 miles of stream in the Pigeonroost Hollow area near the town of Blair, West Virginia.  In Bragg v. Robertson the EPA joined the West Virginia Highland Conservancy and other environmental groups in challenging the legality of the 404 permits.  In 1999, U.S. District Judge Charles H. Haden II agreed with the plaintiffs, and after making a personal visit to the mine site and walking the creeks, Haden issued an order blocking the Army Corps from issuing any more 404 permits.

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Judge Haden’s decision was immediately attacked by the coal industry and West Virginia’s political leaders and they appealed to the Federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals where Haden’s injunction was stayed and the case was remanded back to the US District Court.  Arch Coal agreed to delay opening the Spruce No. 1 Mine until the courts could decide on the legality of the 404 permits.

After more legal wrangling, the Army Corps issued the 404 valley fill permits for a scaled down version of 2,300 acres on January 22, 2007. The permits authorized the discharge of fill material into over seven miles of creeks, and the company began mining in Seng Camp Creek, including construction of one valley fill, and has expanded every year since opening.
Continue reading “24 Jobs”

On the Ground Report From Spruce No.1 Mine

Despite EPA Veto, Mountaintop Removal Continues at West Virginia’s Largest Surface Mine

The Spruce No. 1 mine is perhaps most famous for being the first and only mine in history to have its US Army Corps of Engineers 404 permit vetoed by the US Environmental Protection Agency over violations of the Clean Water Act. If constructed, it would be the largest mountaintop removal mine in Appalachia, spanning 3,113 acres and creating six valley fills that would permanently fill six miles of streams, and directly impact more than ten miles of streams.The EPA’s landmark decision was hailed by environmentalists as a great victory, and as a signal that the EPA would use it’s authority under the Clean Water Act to end the illegal practice of burying streams under hundreds of feet of mining spoils.  Yet since 2007, the Spruce No. 1 mine has produced 1.58 million tons of coal and employed an annual average of 24 miners, and to those who live below the mine it seems as if Arch Coal is acting like the permit was never vetoed at all.

On Sunday, February 20th, Climate Ground Zero’s investigative team went to the Spruce No. 1 mine in Logan County, West Virginia to do a citizens’ site inspection.  Here is what we saw.

–Mike Roselle
All Photographs (c) Antrim Caskey, 2011

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Continue reading “On the Ground Report From Spruce No.1 Mine”