Right now in Tennessee, there are four active mountaintop removal mining operations and 13 such permits pending. Each of them is in East Tennessee, clustered along the Appalachian side of the Cumberland Plateau, which is home to one of the largest and most biodiverse forest systems in the world. It's not the kind of place you'd expect to find coal companies dynamiting the tops off the mountains to mine the coal seams underneath.
And yet there they are. According to LEAF, the Knoxville-based environmental advocacy group, the area is ripe for such mining — a practice maligned not only for its utter devastation of the mountains and their surrounding ecosystems, but also because companies often dump the waste (or "overburden") from the operations into the streams, rivers and valleys below. The practice has led to the burying of some 2,500 miles of streams and waterways in the Appalachian region alone.
That's why LEAF, along with Tennessee Conservation Voters and a number of smaller coalitions, has worked in recent years to push the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill that would prevent coal companies from dumping. The bill failed this year, as it has during the past several sessions. But its constituency seems to be steadily — if quietly — growing, as experts begin to view Tennessee and its coal-rich eastern counties as new territory in the fight against mountaintop removal mining.
"Certainly I think we are the next frontier for the coal companies," says Kim Sasser Hayden, executive director of Tennessee Conservation Voters.
The timing, then, of The Last Mountain — which opens Thursday, June 9, at The Belcourt — is ideal. The documentary, which prominently features environmental activist and author Robert F. Kennedy Jr., profiles a group of West Virginians who stand up to Massey Energy, the third-largest coal company in the U.S. and a dominant force in Appalachia. Massey conducts more mountaintop mining operations than any other company, is a uniquely effusive political operator, and runs all the mining in the Coal River Valley, where much of the film is set.
Last week, Kennedy and Haney — both of whom will be in Nashville for the film's opening — talked with the Scene about the story they found in West Virginia.
Kennedy: Really, the only way to win this battle is democracy. If you blew up a mountain in Colorado or New York, you'd be put in jail right away. And you'd never get a permit for anything else. People would think you're criminally insane. But they can bury 2,500 miles of rivers and streams, and blow up 500 mountains, and nothing happens because nobody finds out about it. A new, refreshing dose of indignation and outrage is exactly what this needs.
Haney: The tension down there is palpable. All of the folks featured in our tale not only will find themselves arrested by the police or harassed, but describe a kind of environment of personal threats. The very mining companies that come to Wall Street and say, "What we're going to do is use explosives and mechanization to get rid of all the workers." And thus, the number of jobs in West Virginia mining coal has gone from 150,000 to 15,000 in the last 50 years, even as production soars.
But when they're down in West Virginia, while they point to the kinds of activists that you see in our movie, they say, "Those are the people who are stealing your jobs." And they say that to miners who understandably feel economically vulnerable in our treacherous times, and who live in communities that the explosives [used in the mining] have rendered poor ground for creating alternative employment. Who wants to move in and start a company in a place where there's the explosive power of Hiroshima being dropped every week?
Kennedy: I've spent 27 years trying to make government try to do its job of stopping polluters, and I'm used to the fact that money rules the roost, and logic and democracy and public health are quickly subverted when there's money to be made. This community was radicalized because they believe in democracy and believe in America and believed that government was there to serve them, and that corporations were a beneficent force. And when they found out the whole game was rigged against them, instead of just lying down and taking it, they fought back.
Haney: What I love about civil disobedience as a last resort is that it's open, straightforward, and you take the consequences. It's the exact opposite of this notion that the industry likes to do, which is shroud their misbehavior behind a dark wall of political donations, Potemkin treelines and purchasing of misleading advertisements. ... I personally think it's pretty inspiring that they're standing up for our democracy in a way that Americans always have — because they've always had to.
Interviews were conducted separately and have been edited for length and clarity. To read the complete interview with Bill Haney please click here. To read the complete interview with Robert F. Kennedy Jr. please click here. Visit www.belcourt.org for details.