The Last Mountain
Directed by Bill Haney. Narrated by William Sadler. (2011, PG, 96 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., July 15, 2011
The land, mountains, and timbers of West Virginia have been sacrificed over the decades to America’s ever-increasing demand for energy. Of this, there is no doubt. Putting aside the past, Bill Haney’s documentary looks at the current battle in that state’s Coal River Valley where Massey Energy Company engages in the debatable practice of mountaintop coal removal. The practice is a recently adopted technique that was only made legal at the outset of the George W. Bush administration in a quid pro quo with the mining industry, which had invested inordinately in his presidential campaign. The technique blasts off acres of mountain from the top downward to expose the coal layers that can then be mined with heavy equipment instead sending miners underground. In this sense, mountaintop mining becomes a union-busting technique as well as a health scourge to the neighboring communities by releasing toxic elements into the air and water supply. The blighted moonscapes left behind when Massey is done with a mountain gives the lie to the company’s efforts toward reclamation while also causing flooding and other ecological devastation in the area. All this is important information, and Haney’s interviews with residents are compellingly forthright regarding the deleterious effects mountaintop mining has wrought on their lives. Their plainspokenness contrasts with the professional advocacy of Robert F. Kennedy Jr. of the Waterkeeper Alliance, whose dedication to this Appalachian cause returns him to the area time and again to headline rallies and speak with citizens. Although Kennedy’s contributions are, perhaps, overvalorized, that portrait pales in comparison to the way Don Blankenship, the chairman and CEO of Massey from 2000 to 2010, is demonized. (You may remember the callousness of Blankenship from the April 2010 explosion in Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 people.) Blankenship is an easy villain to target, but the film never really takes on the miscreants that are harder to nail. Those miscreants would be us and our profligate use of energy and inability to dedicate concerted national efforts toward developing workable alternative fuels. The film digresses some as it visits wind farms, which is part of the problem with its narrative. Many facets of the problem in the Coal River valley are touched upon but none are fully developed. Bite-size facts about mountaintop mining are splashed on the screen, but no substantiating sources are for the information are credited. I don’t so much disagree with the statements as doubt whether this piece of advocacy journalism has the goods to sway any doubters. Nevertheless, The Last Mountain provides lots of good information for newcomers to the cause.