'On Coal River': Mountain Destroyers

As On Coal River, shows, it's hard to out into words the damage being done by mountain top removal mining. It's even harder to stop it.

On Coal River

Director: Francine Cavanaugh, Adams Wood
Cast: Judy Bonds, Maria Lambert, Bo Webb, Ed Wiley
Rated: NR
Year: 2009
US date: 2010-10-12 (Stranger Than Fiction)

Watch out for snakes now.

--Ed Wiley

"Look here, look here, look at this. We live here." Bo Webb shows video he's taken of the Coal River Valley in West Virginia, just as a mountaintop explodes. Outside, he leads a cameraperson through woods nearby. The sun shines, birds chirp in the distance. "I love that smell of the tomato patch," he says, "It's amazing all the sounds you hear up here." All that is threatened now, he says, by the miners. He adds, "I shouldn’t call 'em miners. They're not miners. Mountain destroyers, I guess, strip miners."

It's hard to out into words the damage being done by mountain top removal mining (MTR). It's even harder to stop it. As Bo and his neighbors show throughout On Coal River, coal companies and government have made it hard. Screening 12 October at Stranger Than Fiction, with directors Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood on hand to take questions, the documentary focuses on the fight against the Massey Energy Company. Massey has been mining and "cleaning" coal in an area just 250 feet away from the Marsh Fork elementary school. The plant is also near a 375-foot tall dam, holding back 2.8 billion gallons of toxic waste.

Ed Wiley used to work at Massey. "I drove up that dam many a days," he says. "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.

Such images are at once startling and pervasive in On Coal River. 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."

On Coal River underlines 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.

Bonds sympathizes with her opponents, to a point. Jobs are hard to come by, of course. But she's concerned that the argument has been reshaped by other interests. She points out that the Coal Association website quote the Bible, an advertising strategy. She can't help but smile at this: "Understand," she says, "They ain't bothered to tell you that Jesus said he's coming back and meeting us in the mountains. I hope you ain't blown up them mountains he gonna meet us in."

Bonds' estimation of what the miners are doing coincides with Webb's. The "mountain destroyers" are leaving little behind as they pursue short-term goals. And again, language shapes debates and experiences. Bill Caylor of the Kentucky Coal Association describes the process in a way that's downright chilling. "The beauty of this type of mining is that you recover 100% 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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