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Mountaintop mining

Overlooked and disrespected Appalachian communities fight back

A woman at a strip mining site

The Last Mountain – Activist and West Virginia local Maria Gunnoe. Photo courtesy of Uncommon Productions.

Clara Bingham doesn’t mince words about the failure of democracy in Appalachia and the indifference to it in the United States.

“If we were blowing up the Berkshires or the Sierras or the Catskills, let me tell you, there’d be a lot of conversations going on. If mining companies were dumping 300 million gallons of coal sludge into the Hudson River, you’d be hearing a lot about it. But people in America do not care enough about Appalachia. What happens, they think, is not ‘our’ problem.

“Appalachia is overlooked and disrespected. Poor people there have been treated terribly by coal companies for 150 years,” Bingham says, during an early morning telephone interview just weeks after the release of The Last Mountain, a documentary she produced alongside her friend, Bill Haney, a film journalist who directed the shoot.

“A lot of Americans are unaware,” Bingham says, attributing the lack of knowledge to both innocent ignorance and worse – prejudicial stereotyping that wouldn’t be tolerated about other cultural groups.

The film chronicles the fight against mountaintop removal in Boone County, W.V., where Massey Energy dominates the industry – blowing up mountains and spilling roughly two times the amount of sludge into rivers during the last decade than BP dumped oil in the Gulf. Between2000-2006, Massey committed more than 60,000 environmental violations.

Massey also operated the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.V., where an explosion killed 29 miners in April, 2010, culminating in the resignation of the company’s chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, a controversial figure in his own right.

Bingham comes from a long line of journalists. She’s one of the Louisville Binghams, a family dynasty that once owned and operated the dominant newspapers in the Commonwealth, The Louisville Times and The Courier-Journal, as well as WHAS television and radio.  She’s quick to say that one of the newspapers’ Pulitzers was won in 1967 for coverage of strip mining in eastern Kentucky.

Clara Bingham

Clara Bingham

A former White House correspondent for Newsweek and the author of two books (Class Action: The Landmark Case that Changed Sexual Harrassment Law, which was adapted into the film North Country staring Charlize Theron, and Women on the Hill: Challenging the Culture of Congress), she wrote a 2004 story for the Washington Monthly before leaving Washington, DC., about a coal mining sludge spill – where the only person punished was the whistleblower. That’s when she got her first look at mountaintop mining, what she calls “strip mining on steroids.”

“I could not believe what I was seeing,” Bingham says now of that first foray into Coal Country and her research only intensified that first gut-wrenching assessment. The film’s website gives plenty of statistical details:

  • Mountain top removal has destroyed nearly 500 Appalachian Mountains, decimated more than one million acres of forest and buried 2000 miles of streams.
  • There are 312 coal sludge impoundments in Appalachia.
  • In the last 30 years, the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140% while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs.
  • In the last decade, the coal mining industry spent more than $86 million, the railroad industry spent $350 million and coal burn electric utilities spent more than $1 billion on political campaigns and lobbying.
  • There are 600 coal-fired power plants across the United States and over 600 ash ponds across the country, filled with 150 billion gallons of toxic sludge.

The film profiles the ongoing work of tiny Boone County towns to stave off Massey’s attempts to implode Coal Mountain, the last peak in the hills, with precious little support from outsiders, apart from some radical young tree-sitters who perch in the top branches to stymie clear-cutting. Robert Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist, lent his voice to the film.

Footage shows protesters arrested in the office of former West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin to press for a new elementary school in Sundial, WV, since the Marsh Fork school sat only 400 yards from a dam holding back approximately 2.8 billion gallons of toxic sludge – and it was no easy task to get a new school built. “For many years local activists just didn’t let up,” says Bingham, noting that feeling was so high at least one 92-year-old woman in a wheelchair signed up for civil disobedience at the governor’s office.

“The fact is: Democracy is not functioning in Appalachia. The people who live there are not respected. A person’s vote is in competition with the purse strings of mining companies. It’s a complete Banana Republic,” she says, adding that, if polled, the majority of people in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia want mountaintop mining stopped. But public officials keep weakening standards. “So who are they answering to?

“ ….  There is an imbalance of power taking place and it isn’t fair and it isn’t democracy.”           

Oil sludge spill in a lake

The Last Mountain – Martin County, Ky., 2000 sludge spill. Photo by Bud Kraft.

In one of its final acts, the Bush Administration dealt a big blow to the federal stream buffer rule in 2008, making it easier to dump rock and other mine waste from mountaintop removal into nearby streams and valleys.

Bingham and Haney propose that the nation’s energy grid begin running on less coal and more wind power, creating new jobs in the process. The filmmakers contend that the wind industry already employs as many Americans as coal and that a 1991 Department of Energy study reported that three states have enough harnessable wind energy to supply the nation’s electricity needs – and turbines are much more efficient now than then.

The contamination to air and water, the public health problems – studies indicate that cancer rates are twice as high in the mountaintop mining environments -- and the damaged land now vulnerable to flooding is more than an environmental problem, Bingham says. “It is as much a human rights issue as an environmental issue.”

Bingham agrees that the extractive industries – many based in the United States – operate around the world with frightening leeway. But that’s also true here. “You can overlook your own backyard … Appalachia, the inner cities,” says Bingham, calling for vigilance here and abroad, although it may seem tempting and exotic to focus attention on the Third World alone. “Not to take care of ourselves and our problems is hypocritical.”

According to Bingham, those who want to create change can do a number of things:

  • Push President Obama to ban mountaintop mining by reinstating the “fill rule,” which prevents the dumping of mining waste into streams, lakes and valleys, and ask Congress to support the Clean Water Act, a bill that would ban mountaintop mining.
  • Reduce your electricity use; the less electricity used, the less coal used.
  • Volunteer or write a check to support groups featured in the film fighting against mountaintop removal: The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, the Coal River Mountain Watch, Climate Ground Zero, Appalachian Centre for the Economy and the Environment and the Natural Resources Defense Council.