Mining for the truth in ‘Coal Country’

By Chris Mitsoulis

Coal Country features the battle between coal companies and residents of the Appalachia as well as the hardships the residents face because of this ongoing fight.

The coal industry is becoming a monster to the natural life in the Appalachia, which is the focus in the dramatic documentary Coal Country. The movie depicts modern day mining and displays the struggles of miners and activists over one of the world’s biggest ecological problems: mountaintop removal.

The April 12 showing of Coal Country led to a discussion between students and Eco-Reps at the Green Film Series in Sweigart 115 concerning the problems and other natural concerns presented by coal companies because of mining, which were represented in the film. It was moderated by Assistant Professor of Environmental Sciences Dr. Daniel L. Druckenbrod.

“America has the capacity to lead and innovate alternatives that do not pit the industry against the environmentalists,” Druckenbrod pointed out to the audience.

“Just because coal is the cheapest thing around doesn’t mean we should be using it,” senior Brenna Simonson added.

America’s coalfields are full of modest and magnificent people, whom we might never hear of unless we put our ears very close to the earth, according to the film. The tremors are just under the surface.

The film Coal Country shares the story of a rift in a people. In the heart of Appalachia, from which America drew centuries of prosperity, where mining was once an identity as much as an occupation, coal is now threatening the people’s very existence. The movie gives a quick look at the struggle today through the economics, environment, legal battles and protests.

Country music singer Kathy Mattea sets the tone for the movie in the introduction, with a beautiful rendition of Jean Ritchie’s classic “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.”

Most Americans don’t even think of coal as something we use today, according to author Michael Schnayerson at the movie’s beginning, yet it provides approximately a quarter of our energy. We accept the power of coal while knowing next to nothing about it. The message rings loud and clear: coal destroys.

Writer and director Phyllis Geller strives for balance in the film. It film features artists, activists, politicians, miners, hollow-dwellers and industry executives.

Sweeping aerial footage shows the scars of mountaintop removal surface mines, and rivals the film Planet Earth for storytelling through cinematography.

A tearful Mattea disembarks from the plane and says, “There are no words.”

Judy Bonds, an award-winning activist and wind energy advocate, keeps a loaded rifle behind the door of her home to deter would-be assailants in the film.

Also portrayed is Joe Lovett, an attorney who has made a name for himself in the last decade by holding coal companies accountable to existing laws that had been circumvented in the permitting process. He said that it’s been a difficult struggle, referring to the [defendant] government’s method of appealing to a sympathetic 4th Circuit court of appeals.

“It’s been a fight,” he said.  “We win one, they undo it, we win one, they undo it.” This vicious cycle has been tirelessly perpetrated.

We are left with hope from students, locals and institutions that are looking “beyond coal” and toward renewable energy solutions.

While coal’s giant shoes will be difficult to fill, due to America’s long history of dependency on it, opponents say it is “a crutch that we have to learn to walk without.” Coal Country depicts contemporary Appalachia, distraught over coal.  It is emotional but not dark, indicting but not libelous, and optimistic while realistic.

The Green Film Series, launched in fall 2009, continues to deliver a message about key matters concerning sustainability, conservation and environmental issues to the Rider community.

These events are held on the second Tuesday of every month with an upcoming special presentation of YERT: Your Environmental Road Trip on Sunday and Thursday in Sweigart 115.

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