JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Last Mountain (Director: Bill Haney) - July 19, 2011
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The Last Mountain

4.5 4.5
95 min.

On Toxic Pond

Bill Haney’s searing indictment of coal mining—especially the mountain top variety—is a timely reminder of the dangers of relying on non-renewable energy resources to keep most of our electricity requirements on the grid. With Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (president, at-large representative of Waterkeeper Alliance) leading the legal/political charge and dominating the film, one would hope that the current generation of the famed family might have more success to report.

At stake is the demolition of the last mountain standing above the Coal River Valley, West Virginia. As the cinematographers (Tim Hotchner, Stephen McCarthy, Jerry Risius) so tellingly convey—notably the bounty of aerial shots—over the next rise of the lushly vegetated slopes are far too many moonscapes where Massey Energy has literally blown the lids off the once pristine peaks to kick-start the extraction of coal from the rich layer cake of fossilized fuel and rock. Immediately, visions of Sudbury, Ontario (nickel) and northern Alberta (tar sands) spring to mind. Pathetically, one of the prime apologist’s for America’s third largest energy company that provides most of the area’s jobs and election campaign contributions takes incomprehensible pride in the “post-harvest” reconstructions where only crushed rock has been returned: without topsoil, how will anything but scrub take root? Unfortunately, not a word is said about the resultant carnage of wildlife due to the weekly bombast that is the equivalent of Hiroshima.

Yet as soon as that statistic is mentioned, the image of U.S. (and Canadian) bombs wreaking havoc environmentally (as well as devastating innocent people and animals) in various theatres of war is conjured up. Whether for peaceful purposes (power) or regimen change, the devastation to the planet is equally grim. Ironically, the success rate of both enterprises yields little but failing grades.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship (now safely retired) is a Bush Republican through and through. Most certainly, “If you’re not for us, you’re against us” fits the electricity Don’s mantra. His on-camera understanding of climate change (“It’s a hoax. I believe climate is changing naturally.”) destines him for the denialists’ hall of fame (whose other inductees realize all too well that science is only the friend of big business when it strengthens the bottom line).

The chronicling of the Bush administration rewriting EPA regulations to favour polluters as almost the first item of business in 2001, confirms the value of the U.S. political contribution system, making systemic change without benefit of broad public debate so long as the war chest remains full (transportation companies—notably rail, and the power generation “authorities”—also grease party palms to ensure their agendas become embedded in “the way forward”).

The local population’s poor, dying souls trying to live in the valley of toxic death have many stories to share. From far higher than average brain cancer and autism rates to severe flooding, leaky compounds filled to bursting with sludge and deadly by-products, through asthma attacks, layoffs and ghost towns, it’s hard to find an encouraging word. Shamelessly, the plant managers pit the dwindling workforce (now that the unions have been broken, bigger and better machines are feeding profits and forcing layoffs) against their fellow citizens. Only outsiders (such as Kennedy and many of the volunteers from the civil disobedience group, Climate Ground Zero) have the wherewithal to protest effectively. And so they sit down, chain themselves to equipment or become tree sitters in small hope of preventing the last mountain standing to fall.

No one seems to get hurt and the activists serve their jail time without fuss. But not much changes.

Despite well over 60,000 EPA violations (many of which were finally settled with deep-discount fines), the coal continues to make its way to deadly, outdated power generators.

However, with the successful introduction of wind turbine farms, those white electrical knights whirl their way into the picture, promising to save both the mountain and the valley’s inhabitants. Massey merely shrugs, knowing full well it has the political might (including a hilarious unscripted meeting with Governor Joe Manchin and hugely favourably tax incentives and rates) to weather the storm and prepare the next round of mountain top charges.

Playing on his family connections, Kennedy finally gets a short one-on-one with Barack Obama. Shortly after, the EPA announces stricter regulations for coal mining but—of course, Obama’s idealism, like all other change seekers, has had to swallow copious amounts of compromise to even procure a paperclip—they are only applicable to new mines.

As a parting glimmer of hope, Ontario’s oft-stated goal of eliminating coal-powered electricity generation facilities by 2014 is heralded as an example that ought to be more widely imitated. Yet those of us living in Canada’s largest producer/consumer of electricity can recite all manner of difficulties with this bold energy plan from NIMBY for wind farm development around the Golden Horseshoe to current concern that if that target is reached on schedule, then a shortfall of electricity will result. No worries: an election is on the way and the expected change of government could well see the wisdom of continuing to devastate the planet, give companies something to donate about and then re-write the statutes so that only the rules we like need be followed.

Thank goodness for the music. Composer/guitarist/mandolinist/sequencer Claudio Ragazzi along with fiddler Rohan Gregory and banjoist Jason Petrin serve up some tasty, energizing tracks—and almost every sound is acoustic, saving our endangered planet one happy bar at a time. JWR

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