Money-fueled mining in The Last Mountain

By Jess Scanlon

West Virginia Coal River Valley resident Maria Gunnoe mourns the loss of this majestic beauty at a mountaintop removal site.


From beginning to end, The Last Mountain is the tale of environmental heroes and corporate villains. It is a story of a struggle that has lasted for years between big bosses and oppressed residents who are determined to save the breathtaking landscapes that adorn their neighborhoods.

Students were able to view the film in the Sweigart Hall auditorium on Tuesday night and were introduced to the money-fueled problem that the unearthing of coal has imposed on the lives of millions.

The documentary deals with mining in the Appalachian Mountains. It begins with some shocking facts, such as how 16 pounds of coal are burned per person daily and that 30 percent of that coal comes from the Appalachian Region. It also makes the claim that coal is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gases.

The story quickly transitions to the subtopic of coal mining that the film deals with: mountaintop removal coal mining. This process includes blasting the entire mountain to expose veins of coal under the rocks. The narrator describes it as the “most profitable” way for the coal mining industry to function. Mountaintop removal is destructive and leaves what were once national landmarks in ruins.

The documentary then features the stories of those affected by these practices, focusing on the residents of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, who have had all but one mountain near the area destroyed.

They share stories of damaged land after the mountains were exploited, of a school that lost teachers and of a student to cancer because of pollution and activists looking for alternatives to coal, including wind power.

Tuesday’s screening drew an impressive crowd, filling the auditorium to nearly its maximum capacity. The after-film discussion was also a highlight, sparking some debate among students and faculty. However, they all conceded one fact.

“This film has an agenda,” said Daniel Druckenbrod, assistant professor of environmental sciences and discussion moderator.

He seems to be correct. The Last Mountain makes clear that the activists, including Robert Kennedy, Jr. are seen as the good guys while marking the bad guys, the coal industry and Massey Energy in particular, with the same lack of subtlety.

The facts recited before each of the segments are both interesting and disturbing, but no attribution is ever given, casting doubts on their validity.

However, it is in capturing the emotion of the situation that the story begins to shine. There were moments when laughter rang throughout the auditorium and others when viewers seemed to be wiping tears away. Ironically some of the most humorous moments for the crowd were probably not intended to be jokes, such as when the governor of West Virginia called himself “a friend of coal,” eliciting many chuckles.

Images of protestors being carried off by police are among the strongest in the film. The sight of non-violent protestors recalls previous examples of civil disobedience.

Still, the power of the imagery cannot overcome the awkwardness of some portions, such as when Kennedy meets with a member of the coal industry. The scene feels as staged as an old Western film.

Despite these flaws, the message is clear. The very first line of narration is as follows: “I don’t think people understand where electricity comes from.” The film then enlightens viewers and proceeds to show where one source of coal, slightly less than half of the electricity that society uses daily, comes from, leaving audiences in a state of wondrous awe.

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