The Last Mountain: A Case Study in Participatory Democracy

The Last Mountain, a documentary directed by Bill Haney, is centered on the fight to save Coal River Mountain, one of the last remaining mountains in West Virginia’s portion of the Appalachian Mountains, from the devastating practice of mountaintop removal (MTR).  In many ways, the battle for the environment is a consequence of our failing battle for democracy.  The Last Mountain is a case study on the threat of corporate power to our lives and our democracy.  It shows us that the only way to protect ourselves is by participating in the democratic process, either through the formal means or outside of them.  We see the revival of non-violent disobedience toppling brutal dictators in the Middle East and being utilized to fight for workers’ rights in Wisconsin.  In the fight for the environment we can look at the heroic ongoing story told in The Last Mountain and work of activists like Tim DeChristopher as examples of great sacrifice and courage to protect the average American’s rights and the environment.  We see public outcry following the nuclear disaster at Fukushima molding Germany’s plan to eliminate their nuclear program by 2022, and a recent referendum in Italy overwhelmingly condemning nuclear power, to which President Berlusconi responded “We shall probably have to say goodbye to nuclear energy,” a stark change in policy.Mountaintop Removal

In fact, earlier this month a coalition of activists embarked on a 50 mile hike to Blair Mountain to commemorate the historic battle of Blair Mountain, one of the largest civil uprisings in United States history, and to oppose the practice of mountaintop removal.  Despite intimidation from the coal companies and local law enforcement, and a stifling heat wave, the group made it to Blair Mountain with high spirits and high hopes for their chance to save the mountain.  Although the march is over, the battle for Blair Mountain continues.

At a time when corporations are being emboldened by the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and a laughably corporate political climate to which the media is a willing partner, we need to take a lesson from the heroes in The Last Mountain and stand up for our health, our environment, and our democracy.

Mountaintop Removal

MTR is the practice of using explosives to remove the tops of mountains to gain access to the coal seams inside. Enormous amounts of explosives are used and much of the waste is simply dumped off the mountain into valleys, blocking streams, destroying ecosystems, causing flooding, and filling the environment with heavy metals and other pollutants.  The practice of MTR was essentially legalized during the Bush-Cheney Administration through minor changes in word choice in key legislation.

By the Numbers

MTR is responsible for the destruction of 500 Appalachian Mountains1, 1 million acres of forest and 2000 miles of streams, not to mention the egregious pollution of much more.  The health and environmental cost of the coal industry are estimated at about $345 billion annually.  Coal plants are believed to contribute to 10 million asthma attacks, brain damage in 600,000 newborns, and 43,000 premature deaths annually.   These numbers do not include, of course, an unquantifiable amount of human suffering and the destruction of precious ecosystems.

The coal extraction and cleaning process creates a toxic sludge known as coal slurry, which is kept in giant impoundments, essentially man-made lakes holding billions of gallons of slurry.  Coal slurry is made up of coal, petroleum, heavy metals, and even radioactive materials.   There are 312 coal slurry impoundments in Appalachia, 28 of which belonged to Massey Energy, which was recently bought by Alpha Natural Resources.  Twenty four of Massey’s impoundments have spilled in the last decade, leaking over 300 million gallons of sludge, one and a half times the amount estimated to have leaked from the BP oil spill.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Coal

The coal industry has incredible economic and political power and Massey Energy, the villain of The Last Mountain and the operator of the Upper Big Branch Mine in which 29 workers died in a seemingly preventable accident in April of 2010, was one of the most powerful and influential coal companies in the United States.  In the past decade the coal mining industry has spent $86 billion dollars on campaign contributions.

Massey Energy had 60,000 environmental violations between 2000 and 2006 for which they were forced to pay $20 million by the EPA in 2008, less than 1% of the total amount of fines Massey had accumulated.   The following year, Massey jumped from 791 on the 2008 Forbes Annual Ranking of America’s Largest Corporations, to 689 in 2009. The fine, although the largest to date in EPA history, was simply the cost of doing business.

Coal as Part of the Social Fabric

The roots of the coal industry run deep in Appalachia, and go back several generations in many families.  The coal industry has a near monopoly on employment, something that is very important to Americans and West Virginians, especially in the midst of tough economic times and high unemployment.  Many West Virginian families are divided on the issue of MTR and see the coal industry in varying ways.

It is easy and often tempting for some, including industry and its supporters, to label those opposing mountaintop removal as “tree huggers,” “job-killers,” or “environmentalists,” labels that often have condemnatory connotations with much of the population of Appalachia.  In reality, the fight against mountaintop removal in Appalachia is comprised of a diverse coalition of people including miners, environmentalists, and local residents that are living with the direct impacts of MTR.  Meanwhile, the dialogue regarding the economic benefits that the coal industry provided to the average West Virginian is muddied by corporate propaganda and those willing to repeat, re-air and re-print that propaganda.

The Real Economics of Coal

When one considers the facts, questions begin to arise; If coal brings so many jobs and is so profitable to the West Virginian people, why is West Virginia the poorest state in the United States?  And why are some of the poorest areas in West Virginia those that have the most coal mining?  Perhaps it is because the coal industry destroys the environment and damages air and water supplies, thus making it unappealing, or even impossible, for other industries or people to survive and thrive in the area.  Or, perhaps it is because the coal industry is notorious for breaking unions and that coal workers have few rights and are unable to fight for a better standard of living.  Or, maybe it is because the coal industry in West Virginia increased production by 140% over the last 30 years while eliminating, yes eliminating, 40,000 jobs.  Or, finally, perhaps it is because coal executives like Massey’s Don Blankenship, an avid climate change denier, receive outrageous financial compensation such as the “golden parachute,” valued at $32.9 million dollars not including stock options, that he received upon his retirement, approximately eight months after Massey had the worst mining accident in the U.S. in the last 40 years, while short cuts are taken on safety measures in order to save money and coal miners are poorly compensated as their health deteriorates.

A Clean Political Alternative: Participatory Democracy

The documentary focuses on Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental lawyer, and a group of West Virginians turned activists who are fighting to preserve their homes, their water, their communities, their schools, their health, and what is considered to be the most biodiverse ecosystem in the country.  They are organizing protests, meetings, marches, as well as acts of civil disobedience to halt, and ultimately prevent, the destruction of Coal River Mountain.  They have already accomplished so much, as can be seen in the documentary, but the story is far from over.

A Clean Energy Alternative: Wind

The coalition was able to raise enough money to do a study on the feasibility of putting a wind farm on Coal River Mountain.  The wind on Coal River Mountain was deemed to be class five on a scale of one to seven, which is highly promising.  According to The Last Mountain, the wind farm would generate considerably more tax revenue annually than the coal in the mountain, and would do so perpetually unlike coal.  The wind farm would also provide the area with many needed jobs, many of which would be permanent.  The wind industry in the U.S. already employs 85,000 people, as many as the coal industry.

Furthermore, although the cost of one kilowatt hour of electrical energy produced by coal is estimated to cost about 6.1 cents compared to an estimated 7.9 for wind, when all of the external environmental and health costs are included the price of coal jumps to 23.1 cents per kilowatt hour, according to a Harvard Medical School report2.

  1. Data within this article was retrieved from http://thelastmountainmovie.com/issues/.  6/17/11
  2. “Full Cost Accounting for the Life Cycle of Coal.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Dr. Paul Epstein, associate director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School

– Scott McDonald,  Public Citizen Summer Intern, Senior at Fordham University