While watching “Burning the Future“, the powerful new documentary on the environmental impact of strip mining (more accurately referred to as “mountaintop removal”), I could not help but think of rape. As you watch the profit-mad coal companies turn a prone and helpless West Virginia into a victim, your soul cries out for justice. Unfortunately, unlike sex crimes, turning coal into electricity–no matter the environmental and human costs–becomes justified as a civic duty during an era of growing energy insecurity. When Bill Raney, a sleazy coal industry spokesman with dyed hair and mustache, appears throughout the film to defend mountaintop removal, you cannot help but notice the little placard on his bookshelf that says: “Bush Loves Coal”.
I first became aware of the environmental impact of mountaintop removal in an April 2005 Harper’s Magazine article by Erik Reece titled “Death of a mountain: Radical strip mining and the leveling of Appalachia”. Reece reports that:
There was a time in this region when union miners would have extracted the coal that lies beneath Lost Mountain with hand picks and shovels in deep underground shafts. But twenty-six years after Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA), the coal industry has developed much more expedient and much more destructive methods of mining. Instead of excavating the contour of a ridge side, as strip miners did throughout the 1960s and ’70s, now entire mountaintops are blasted off, and almost everything that isn’t coal is pushed down into the valleys below. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 700 miles of healthy streams have been buried by mountaintop removal-some say the number is twice that-and hundreds more have been damaged. Blasting on the mine sites has cracked the foundations of nearby homes and polluted hundreds of family wells. Creeks run orange with sulfuric acid and heavy metals. Wildlife populations have been summarily dispersed. An entire ecosystem has been dismantled.
Remarkable enough as a muckraking indictment of the coal industry, the movie is also a real breakthrough by showing the capacity of ordinary Americans, most of whom conform to the “Red State” stereotype of country music, NASCAR races, hunting and the Baptist church, to resist the onslaught that has turned their water wells into receptacles of filthy, toxic strip-mining run-off. The documentary, directed by David Novack, is a reminder that political activism is nearly never the result of preaching from above but the experience of daily life under a social, economic, or–in this instance–an environmental crisis. When your children suffer one health emergency after another, it is of no use to tell the parents that this is balanced by “economic progress” in their home state.
The wages of progress
Indeed, this kind of bottom line justification is hard to maintain in the face of job loss in the region. One of the main motivations for strip mining was to reduce the work force and increase profits. Armed with a stick of dynamite, one man might produce more coal in an hour than ten men can produce with pneumatic drills all day. With such happy economic facts staring the coal barons in the face, no wonder they decide to go with the dynamite.
Living beneath the mountaintops is another story altogether. Once you level the mountains of their natural foliage, including trees that it took a thousand years to produce, there is no natural resistance to flooding. Maria Gunnoe, a long-time West Virginia resident who comes from a coal-mining family, decided to become a full-time activist after seeing flood waters wash away most of her property. Seeing such destructive torrents, a kind of mountain-top tsunami in terms of its impact on peoples’ lives, convinced her to become part of a movement.
There is another form of flooding in the area that is also the product of mountaintop removal and even more deadly. When you are involved with strip mining, there is a need to dump the waste products in some nearby receptacle and what could be more convenient than West Virginia’s ample supply of streams and rivers. Of course, heavy metals might kill off all the fish living there, but that is a small price to pay for “progress”. Dams are formed as the natural result of such dumping as tons of rock and sand create artificial barriers to the swift-moving water. Unfortunately, such dams are susceptible to breakage–just like the New Orleans levees–and can result in catastrophe as was the case in 1967, when filthy water held back by a dam in Buffalo Creek poured into nearby villages after the dam burst. 132 million gallons of black waste water left 125 people dead and 1,121 injured, with over 4,000 left homeless. That is out of a population of 5,000!
Director David Novack allows the citizens of West Virginia to emerge as the stars of the movie, along with the scientists and public interest lawyers who have put themselves at their disposal. These are people who never expected to turn on their taps and see filthy muck fill their glasses. When a group comes up to New York City to press their case before the United Nations, they drop in at the Sherry-Netherland, a luxury hotel that is home to one of the coal industry’s top executives. One can imagine what this businessman would say if the same kind of filth came out his gold-plated faucets.
On the website Stop Mountaintop Removal, you can find out about what makes such folks tick. Maria Gunnoe’s story is worth quoting in some detail:
I’m settin’ there on my porch, which is my favorite place in the whole world, by the way – I’d rather be on my front porch than any other place in the world and I’ve been to a lot of places. As it stands right now, with the new permits I saw last week, they’re gonna blast off the mountain I look at when I look off my front porch. And I get to set and watch that happen, and I’m not supposed to react. Don’t react, just set there and take it. They’re gonna blast away my horizon, and I’m expected to say, “It’s OK. It’s for the good of all.”
Am I willing to sacrifice myself and my kids, and my family and my health and my home for everybody else? No – I don’t owe nobody nothin’. It’s all I can do to take care of my family and my place. It was all I could do before I started fightin’ mountain top removal. Now that I’m fightin’ mountaintop removal, it makes it nearly impossible. But at the same time, my life is on the line. My kids’ lives are on the line. You don’t give up on that and walk away. You don’t throw up your hands and say, “Oh, it’s OK, you feed me three million tons of blasting material a day. That’s fine, I don’t mind. It’s for the betterment of all.”
I can’t say that there’s anything out there that I’m willin’ to risk myself and my kids for. Nothin’. No amount of money, no amount of energy, no amount of anything. If it come down to it, we could live up under a rock cliff with what the good Lord above give us. And we could live like that, as long as we got clean water, clean air, and a healthy environment. We can take care of ourselves from there. But when they contaminate our water, our air, and our environment we’re gonna die no matter what we do. That’s it.
Kudos to David Novack for producing and directing a movie like “Burning the Future” that introduces us to a real hero like Maria Gunnoe. “Burning the Future” will open today at the Landmark Cinema Theater in New York and in Los Angeles a week later. It will also show on the Sundance Channel on May 13th this year. I give this film my highest recommendation.