Ordinary Citizens Fight Big Coal

by Marcia Yerman

“Heroes of American Democracy.” That is how Robert F. Kennedy Jr. describes the main players in the struggle against Big Coal in The Last Mountain, which has just been released on DVD. Featuring citizen activists fighting for clean air and water against entrenched interests and corporate dollars, the documentary combines backstory, statistics, and human interest to explain more fully the narrative of where our electricity comes from.

Setting the stage is information outlining how coal plays a part in the American energy equation:

  • Almost one-half of the electricity in the United States comes from burning coal
  • 16 pounds of coal are burned daily for every man, woman, and child in the United States
  • One third of the coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia

Juxtaposed to this data is footage of ordinary people holding signs that read, “Stop Blasting: Save the Kids.” They are residents of Coal River Valley, West Virginia. Their goal is to protect Coal River Mountain, home to biologically diverse forests and their way of life. “People have had enough and they’re standing up to the coal companies,” says one demonstrator.

With the hopes of evening the odds in their battle, the West Virginia citizens reached out to Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—an environmental lawyer with established creds. Kennedy appears at pivotal moments throughout the film. He is the father of three children with asthma caused by “ozone and particulates from burning coal illegally.”

Walking through a destroyed mountaintop, Kennedy comments, “If the American people could see it, there would be a revolution in this country.” When directly confronting a coal company representative on how a demolished mountaintop has been reconstructed, Kennedy points out, “This is supposed to be a forest.” Reacting to the talking points response he receives, he asks sardonically, “How many lies do you have to tell to make this whole fiction work?”

There is ample footage that demonstrates exactly what transpires in order to extract coal from the Appalachian Mountains. First, the trees are cut down. Then the mountains are blasted. Boulders tumble down to the homes in the valley below, filled with silica dust. With 2500 tons of explosives detonated daily, the mountains are reduced to rubble. Maria Gunnoe, a mother who comes from two generations of coal miners, conveys, “You feel like you’re under attack.” Gunnoe discusses how the persistent and severe flooding on her land pushed her to become proactive. A coal company engineer defends the rainfall flooding as, “Not our fault.” Rather, he attributes it to, “An act of God.”

The Bruce Mansfield power plant, one of the country’s largest coal-fired facilities, is located a few miles from Shippingport, Pennsylvania. The plant has blanketed the town with toxic fly ash. There are eight children in the area with autism, including Susan Bird’s son. She asks ruefully, “As a parent, you sit there and wonder, did I do this? You know, if I lived somewhere else would he have been healthier?” Currently, researchers have undertaken a ten-year study on the relationship between autism and air borne pollutants.

The documentary makes it clear that the people pushing back are up against very heavy hitters. This includes representatives from both political parties, lobbyists for varied interests, as well as the coal industry. In 2004, George W. Bush, who received enormous contributions from the coal sector was quoted as saying of his re-election, “This is a coal-fired victory.”

Massey Energy (which was acquired by Alpha Natural Resources in 2011), and its CEO (through 2010) Don Blankenship, serve as the major representatives of the coal industry’s point of view. Another one-time Massey employee, with a very different outlook, is Ed Wiley—who served as a contractor to the company. Little did he know that he would go head to head with his former boss. His mission was to fight for the health of his granddaughter and her classmates, who attended elementary school adjacent to a Massey industrial coal processing plant. The children and teachers were subjected to air borne coal dust sucked into the school’s ventilation system. Wiley describes the situation as “a hornets nest sitting over the school.” He becomes determined to have the school resituated. He marches with signs asking, “Massey: Why are you poisoning our kids?” He confronts then governor Joe Manchin, who self-identifies as a “friend of coal.” Pointing to his granddaughter Wiley instructs, “This is not an environmental issue, this is a little human being.” Along with Bo Webb and other members of the community, the town finally gets a new school—with Massey footing 20 percent of the bill.

Each year, emissions from coal-fired plants contribute to:

  • More than 10 million asthma attacks
  • Brain damage in up to 600,000 newborn children
  • More than 43,000 premature deaths

Burning coal is the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide. There are 600 coal-fired plants across the United States; their emissions cover the entire country. There are 600 ash ponds nationwide filled with 150 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

By focusing on the stories of those whose physical well being and families have been directly affected, The Last Mountain shows, in the words of director Bill Haney, “the power of ordinary citizens to remake the future when they have the determination and courage to do so.”



Related Stories:

Energy Company Abandons Plan for Georgia Coal Plant

Mercury Poisoning: A Parents’ Revolt

Montana Selling Coal to Australia And China


Photo credit: Uncommon Productions


Holly Lawrence
Holly Lawrence6 years ago


Barbara D.
Barbara DeFratis6 years ago

Yes, we need to end coal, even here in Ohio. Coal mining is more than just dangerous to the miners health and safety, but it is part of the Global Climate Change Problem. We need to change to re-usable energy sources.

Linda C.
Linda C.6 years ago

It's important to turn our indignation to action. How? Many of us use much more energy from coal than we realize, so reducing our use of energy is a good place to start. One easy thing to do is to shower every other day rather than every day, and use sweaters and other warm clothing to allow you to heat your home less.

Monica D.
Monica D6 years ago

Stop coal!

june koylass-ali
june koylass-ali6 years ago

we need more ordinary people to stand up against practises that are negatively life on the planet.

Chad A.
Chad Anderson6 years ago

Maybe there will come a time when the use of coal will not be a direct threat to our survival, but even if that were not the case, the methods currently in use are so destructive and virtually require the breaking of the law in order to maintain profitability. It is time to end subsidies and fully enforce the law without any more waivers.

Winn Adams
Winn A6 years ago

In Bellingham WA we are fighting to stop coal trains from going through our beautiful community. We don't know how it will turn out but we'll fight it until the end.

Margaret F.
Marge F6 years ago

Thank-you for the informative article & video. Our government has to open its ears & eyes now before they completely obliterate large groups of the citizens of the USA. What is it going to take to get the powers that be to realize that money maybe nice now, however, what about the future generations to come? What is it going to take to bring these money hungry mongrels back to whatever senses they have left so the destruction of of our great nation will cease?

Edith B.
Edith B6 years ago

I live in "coal country" and see everyday the devastation the current method of mining causes. It is dangerous to espouse anti-coal views here because the coal industry is the only source of decent paying jobs. My grandfather was a coalminer who proudly marched on Washington to get the union. My dad spent his entire working life in the mines and died with black lung disease. I have a nephew who works for a mining company now. It is the first good paying job he has been able to find. I argue with him about the methods being used. Underground mining does not cause the environmental destruction the mountain top removal does. Yes, we should have a green source of energy by now, but we don't. As long as the coal and oil companies literally own most of our politicians, we never will.

Dave C.
David C6 years ago

Heroes is correct!