Sundance Explores the Last Mountain

PARK CITY, UTAH — Sundance to the film industry is like the NCAA championship in collegiate basketball: the best of the best in what is designed to be a purist format. It’s about the film makers and directors and actors, the writing and the plots, not unlike the two best amateur teams in the world playing on a neutral court, for all the marbles.

It’s an ultimate experience for movie buffs. The vibe is so low key that you truly don’t notice the famous Hollywood types since everyone wears jeans and a sweater. No paparazzi, no limos, no swanky parties with designer duds. The awards ceremony was held not at the super elite St. Regis or Montage hotels, but at the Basin Recreation Fieldhouse at Kimball Junction. That pretty much says it all about the atmosphere at Sundance. It’s about the movies, not the money or the glitz. Of course, commerce is still done, films are picked up for distribution, directors are scouted, and new stars are discovered. Robert Redford sightings are very rare so I didn’t get to ask him in person, but he’s got to be happy with what he has created: a full-on minor league development system for the film industry.

I came to Park City specifically to view environmental documentaries, as Sundance is well known for its role in premiering important films about social and environmental issues. One of this year’s most important movies of this genre is The Last Mountain. This riveting film examines one of Sierra Club’s least favorite subjects: coal mining (in this case, coal blasting, literally blowing off the top of a mountain to access its motherlode of coal) and its effect on the environment and the people who live near the mining site.

Here is the quick “official” synopsis of The Last Mountain: “Focusing on the devastating effects of mountaintop coal removal in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley, filmmaker Bill Haney illustrates the way residents and activists are standing up to the industry and major employer that is so deeply embedded in the region. With strong support from Bobby Kennedy Jr. and grassroots organizations, awareness is rising in the battle over Appalachian mountaintop mining.” You can view the trailer at

Yes, The Last Mountain is another Fight The Power flick. But it’s also much more than that. This film reminds us that we are all indirectly supporting the coal mining industry, every time we turn on the lights. It also shows us how important grassroots movements can be. And Robert Kennedy Jr.’s role as champion for the townspeople is depicted for what it is: a sincere, non-grandstanding example of pure volunteerism that lends some celebrity credibility to a legitimate cause.

Mountaintop coal removal is not only destructive, but until recently, it violated the Clean Water Act and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Unfortunately, industry-friendly federal and state agencies mostly looked the other way when it came to enforcing these laws. When the courts and local communities attempted to make the mining companies comply, the Bush administration changed the laws to allow mining companies to continue to dump rock and rubble into the valleys and streams below. Communities throughout Appalachia are fighting back against this blight on the earth that harms the environment, health and quality of life of local citizens. Bank of America even pledged to curtail commercial lending to companies that blow the tops off of mountains.

I’m no film reviewer, so you can search other sites if you’d like to know how the critics ratedThe Last Mountain. I do have some additional thoughts about this subject, no disrespect to the movie, that need to be brought out. First, it appears that the big bad coal company (none other than Massey Energy, yes the same guys who had the terrible explosion and fatalities last year, and just last week was acquired for $7 billion by Alpha Natural Resources) wins the battle and blows up the mountain anyway. Thanks a lot, George Bush. I say that because the film brings to light the fact that those regulating the coal industry were largely energy industry cronies of Mr. Bush, previously lobbyists and coal company executives hired by the Bush administration. And while the Obama administration has been sympathetic to the cause, they have yet to overturn any important legislation that will keep the mountains intact, prevent coal companies from dumping their waste, and protect the inhabitants of Appalachia. Not sure what they are waiting for?

The Last Mountain provided wake-up call for the general public and those of us who do not live in Appalachia. Actually, there has been a lot of activity in this area for many years. By the end of 2010, Sierra Club lobbying and legal efforts helped stop the construction of 149 coal mines throughout the country with its “Beyond Coal” campaign. NRDC and other leading environmental organizations have also made huge contributions toward stopping this incredibly damaging and dangerous activity. One nitpick I had was at the end of the film there is a call to action to visit The Last Mountain website, i.e. soliciting donations. I found several smaller organizations that need assistance to stop coal mining. Although I am a proponent of grassroots efforts, dollars will go much farther if given directly to existing programs such as Sierra Club or NRDC which have full legal staffs, specialized expertise and years of experience. Why create yet another non-profit to do the same thing when some of the best are already in place?

In case you are a coal mining supporter, right now asking, “so what will we use to turn on the lights if we don’t have coal mining?” the answer is, renewable energy. Some combination of wind, solar, fuel cells, petro algae, natural gas and other technologies will ultimately take the place of foreign oil and domestic (and imported) coal to power our country. This will happen, it’s just a matter of when. Stopping coal mining will help expedite this process, and anybody who sees The Last Mountain will most likely become a zealot for ending the madness that is mountaintop coal removal.

Photo obtained via a Creative Commons license

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