Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

New Documentary Exposes America's Big Dirty Secret

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

New Documentary Exposes America's Big Dirty Secret

Article excerpt

The only time that the U.S. military was used against American citizens occurred for five days in late August and early September 1921, at Blair Mountain, Logan County, W.Va. Police and strikebreakers fought coal miners who were trying to unionize. Warren Harding ordered the U.S. Army to intervene against the coal miners. Fifty to 100 striking miners were killed and almost 1,000 arrested, many of whom were tried for treason against the state of West Virginia or indicted for murder or conspiracy. John Sayles' 1987 film "Matewan" tells the story of part of the Blair Mountain uprising. The striking miners failed at that time but with the New Deal in 1933, United Mine Workers was formed in West Virginia.

Coal fueled the Industrial Revolution and went global in the early 20th century. Worldwide mining of soft bituminous coal is a key industry providing energy and coke for steel.

The problem for the United States and the world today is that coal is dirty, it's expensive, and modern coal mining devastates the environment and the communities that surround it. Coal mining is dangerous, expensive to the consumer, and disproportionately profitable to the multinational corporations that own the coal mines or licenses to mine. The mining is highly mechanized and thus provides few jobs to local populations, though the coal companies would have you think differently.

But the greatest harm created by Big Coal, according to environmental attorney and lobbyist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., is its blow to democracy. This is America's dirty secret.

Nowhere is this phenomenon demonstrated better than in West Virginia today, and award-winning filmmaker Bill Haney of Uncommon Productions ("The Price of Sugar") sheds the mask covering Big Coal in his latest film, "The Last Mountain." The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

"The Last Mountain" is the story of the small community of Coal River Valley, W.Va., that takes on Massey Energy, the company that controls all the coal mining in Coal River Valley. When Massey planned to blast Coal River Mountain, the last mountain "that has not been blasted to ashes," the community took a stand. Local activists like Maria Gunnoe and Bo Webb, whose families have lived in West Virginia for generations and who have seen their homes and communities devastated, led the fight, joined by activists from outside the state, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The mountain still stands.

At a recent press day here in Los Angeles, Kennedy's outrage over the coal industry's hidden-in-plain-sight influence demonstrated his passion for people, the environment and democracy.

One journalist said that his reaction to the film was anger, and he asked Kennedy if Big Coal was winning.

"They have succeeded in doing catastrophic damage to the state [of West Virginia]; they flattened an area the size of Delaware, 1. …

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