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'On Coal River': You Hate to Touch It

Screening at Silverdocs, On Coal River is almost painfully topical, as it investigates the effects of strip mining by Massey Energy Company in West Virginia.

On Coal River

Director: Francine Cavanaugh, Adams Wood
Cast: Judy Bonds, Maria Lambert, Bo Webb, Ed Wiley
Rated: NR
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-06-25 (Silverdocs Documentary Festival)
They're blowing up our mountains.

-- Bo Webb

"Watch for snakes now." Ed Wiley walks ahead of the camera, through crackly grass. Reaching a good spot on this Appalachian mountainside near his home, he stops and looks out, pointing to a vast stretch of stripped land below, the gray sludge dotted by trucks, flies buzzing on the soundtrack. This is where the Massey Energy Company is mining and "cleaning" coal, he says. Just over there, he points again, is the Marsh Fork elementary school, just 250 feet away from the preparation plant. And over there, that's the dam, 375 foot tall and holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste. The camera pans over that waste, the expanse apparently endless.

"I did it," Wiley says, as he drives away. "I worked here. I drove up that dam many a days, and drove in right in behind that school, and went up there." Now, he doesn't. Now, he worries that his daughter Kayla, a student at Marsh Fork, is "in danger down there." And as he worries, On Coal River illustrates: the school grounds are gray with coal dust and the ventilation system coughs up sooty residue. The scene is worse than grim.

Premiering 25 June at the Silverdocs Documentary Festival, On Coal River is almost painfully topical. Following the deadly April explosion at Massey's Upper Big Branch coal mine -- just three miles from the Marsh Fork school -- investigations have confirmed the claims made throughout the film by residents of Coal River Valley, namely, that Massey repeatedly violated safety rules and environmental regulations.

Not that the documentary, directed by Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood, leaves any doubt as to these claims. The film is smart and patient, respectful of the residents who make it their mission to make you see what they see. Scene after scene shows how Massey's abuses are ongoing and rampant. Repeated shots show the effects: a toilet tank filled with putrid orange sludge, blackened water filters (after just a week's use), darkened school walls. This last shot appears just after Wiley speaks with school board member Judy Almond, who dismisses his fears. "I know our board would never do anything to harm a child," she says, "And if you gave us one bit of solid evidence, we'd be gone." Unlike the camera, she apparently misses the wall behind her. The crew tags along with one of Wiley's neighbors, Bo Webb, as he goes door to door, collecting stories of health concerns (anecdotal, yes, but harrowing and numerous: cancer, respiratory problems, kidney failures, and headaches). Another neighbor, Maria Lambert, holds a jar of green fluid from her dad's well and sighs, "We use this water to wash our dishes in, to take a bath in. But you hate to touch it."

These and other examples make On Coal River an apt companion piece to Gasland. Both films point out the stunning disjunction between what residents live with and what authorities acknowledge. Wiley, Webb, and Judy Bonds all come together to gather and present their cases to anyone who will listen -- and even those averse to listening, like West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, who shakes Wiley's hand and assures him that, as a fellow grandfather, he'll "make sure everything is done." Wiley looks at the camera and doesn’t quite smile. "He said he was a grandfather too," Wiley says.

It's not exactly a shock that the governor's months-long investigation declares the school is "safe." The Coal River Valley residents don't quit. They show up on the radio, on TV, in front of classrooms and any community gathering they can find. Wiley walks from Charleston, West Virginia to DC, where he meets with Robert Byrd. "It's a sad day in West Virginia that we gotta leave our state to walk to do what we have to do to save our children," Wiley announces as he sets off down the road, a flag on a pole slung over his shoulder.

The question of state governance and Massey's daunting hold on state employment comes up repeatedly in On Coal River, which makes it a point to let those supporting the corporation speak. The workers (including schoolteachers and miners) need their jobs, of course, and they organize counter-protests to Bonds and Webb's. The pro-Massey signs focus on the local economy rather than the air and water. "We keep the community going," one woman says, "If Massey wasn’t here, there would be no jobs." For these workers, the corporate (and state) line holds: no evidence has been gathered to prove the strip mining and processing are causing health problems.

The focus on labor recalls another extraordinary documentary about the hard work of mining, environmental exploitation, and company corruption, Barbara Kopple's Harlan County USA. That said, as Webb notes early on, this film is about effects on a broad community (that includes protesting non-miners), as well as a kind of mining that is categorically different from the traditional underground sort. Trying to describe the process that's literally exploding, leveling, and polluting every aspect the mountains around him, he says, "I shouldn’t call them miners. They're not miners. I don’t' know what you'd call 'em. Mountain destroyers, I guess, I don’t know. A coal miner goes underground. So I don't know what you'd call those guys. Strip miners."

The contrast between Webb's evaluation and the explanation of the strip mining process provided by Bill Caylor of the Kentucky Coal Association doesn't do the company any favors. "The beauty of this type of mining is that you recover one-hundred percent of the coal," Caylor says. "The law requires us to maximize coal recovery, so we don’t have to come back in and re-affect this area." Images of the initial effect, however, are bleak, revealed when he drives the camera crew to see the site, devastated. "We're criticized because we don't employ as many people," Caylor adds.

Here you might wonder whom Caylor imagines he's talking to. He and others who don't make convincing cases (including several representatives of the state's apparently powerless Environmental Protection Department) seem enamored of their talking points, but don't notice what's literally outside their windows. On Coal River makes certain that you don't miss any of it.


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