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The Last Mountain

Coverage by Nobuhiro Hosoki

Story : A coal mining corporation and a tiny community vie for the last great mountain in Appalachia in a battle for the future of energy that affects us all.

Opened June 3, 2011 (Limited 6/3)

Runtime:1 hr. 35 min.


Interview with Director Bill Haney and Robert Kennedy JR.


(Q) : Bill, how did you decide to get involved in these environmental causes that are shown in “The Last Mountain”?

(Bill Haney) : I began my work life as an inventor, starting in air-pollution control systems companies when I was a freshman in college. I designed systems to reduce emissions from power plants. So in my late teens and early 20s, I was crawling around on smoke stacks and coal-fired power plants. The scale and the characteristics of the environmental contamination coming out of it were obvious to me.

I taught environmental policy at Harvard, the Kennedy School of Government and some other stuff. And as a storyteller, I find myself drawn to stories of ordinary folks who find within themselves the ability to do something extraordinary when circumstances challenge them. And they can build off their character and do something dramatic for all of us. This story had a lot of that, and there’s a sense of profound injustice at the core of this tale, which is ultimately, for me, a civil-rights story. So that was the place that I was.

And then Clara Bingham, who’s one of my producing partners and one of America’s finest investigative journalists, did some extraordinary reporting in Appalachia. And she, among other things, began to work with whistleblowers, who started talking about the government’s unwillingness to enforce the regulations and laws that we all rely on.

And she pointed me to Bobby Kennedy’s extraordinary book “Crimes Against Nature,” which manages to be both a powerful voice and a lyrical voice in defense of our democracy, as well as our environment. And Bobby’s work highlighted for me that the assault on the environment and public health that mountaintop mining in Appalachia clearly represents is only allowed because there’s been an assault on our democracy.

So I went to watch Bobby speak. His extraordinary gifts as an orator, his ability to distill complicated things into something that is emotionally powerful and straightforward and compelling and to tie in some important way what’s happening today to our legacy as Americans, to our cornerstone principles we have as Americans, and ask us questions about what kind of future do we want to live.

To some extent, what you see in the mountains of Appalachia is our democratic legacy, our ecological legacy. Much of what we got from our forbearers is being dropped into a meat grinder and ground up and given as bonuses to a small number of executives across the country, while all the devastation is left to the rest of us. And when Bobby was kind enough to agree to the long-standing work that he’s done in West Virginia, you can judge from this film.

(Q) : Robert, did your environmental activism originate from any early experiences in your life?

(Robert Kennedy JR.): I was interested in the environment from when I was a little kid. I spent most of my time hunting and fishing and kayaking. My father took us to all the great whitewater rivers. I was interested in those issues in the outdoors. But I also saw pollution when I was a kid. And my first memories are smoke stacks on K Street in downtown Washington, in Georgetown. I saw pollution as a kind of theft, as a criminal enterprise. It’s something that was stealing from the American public.

And when I was 8 years old, I decided to write a book about pollution. I wrote a letter to my uncle President Kennedy, and I told him that I wanted to talk about those issues, and he invited me to the White House. And I think there are some scenes of me in the film visiting him on that trip. And then he sent me over to his Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, to interview, which I did on a big reel-to-reel tape recorder.
My father took us to all the western whitewater rivers. And when he ran for the Senate in New York state, he took us up to the Adirondacks to the upper Hudson to do the Whitewater Derby in early March. We actually did it in a snowstorm.

And it was my first exposure to the Hudson. And when we did the western whitewater rivers, the guys all carried cups. The guys from the Hudson said, “Don’t drink , because it’s poison.” And for me, that was also kind of a revelation that somebody had been allowed to poison the river and to steal something that belonged to the public and to steal it from all of us. If you ask if there was a moment that was revelatory for me, that was one of them.

Q) : When you’re making a documentary, you can obviously get access to certain people because they want the exposure, but on the other hand, people may cut off access because they don’t want to be on camera. What were some of things that you wish were in the film that you couldn’t get because you weren’t given permission to film?

(Bill Haney) : I’ve had this experience in the past with previous documentaries where people either refuse to talk on camera, people want to talk off the record, people change their opinions. But I think in part because of the great producing of Clara Bingham, we didn’t have as much of that happening on this film. Certainly, the coal industry and the senior people at Massey did not want to be interviewed. They didn’t want to talk about it.

But they were confident enough in their story personally, this is an opinion. Because they’d been bullying the folks in their community for so long that they had confidence that they could pull it off again. And so they trotted out the tried-and-true flack to tell us the story. And we gave him lots of prominent time. He opens the movie.

There are really only two stories the coal industry tells, “Coal keeps the lights on, and by implication, you’ll live in medieval, soul-shattering darkness if you don’t let us do whatever the hell we want with the landscape and drinking water you public health, because there’s no alternative.” And I think we as Americans know there’s a much better alternative than the 17th century practice of burning rocks to power our economy.

And the other thing is: “We’re the source of necessary employment, and we’re all sensitive to the fact of Americans needing jobs, particularly in this economy, and we’re all sensitive to the mining families.” It doesn’t take us away from the essential facts, which are that the mining industry had 150,000 jobs 40 years ago, and now it’s 15,000 jobs, while simultaneously increasing production dramatically by using explosives and mechanizations to do away with workers. And by pushing the workers out of unions, destroying the unions, and pushing workers to $15-an-hour, no benefits, has been destroying this work environment in ways that no one could have imagined. They’ve been confident that their storytelling would somehow be sufficient.

(Q) : What do you think will be on “The Last Mountain” DVD extras?

(Bill Haney): There’s a tremendous amount of interview history and a lot of background research. If you look at, for example, the summary of political donations in the movie. that has never been published before, because it’s concealed. It took a Harvard-led team of four people two years to gather all this information up and around America.

Or when you see at the end of the movie that the coal industry tells you it costs you this much, but it actually costs you this much if you add the costs together, that’s not an illustration or a metaphor, that’s the result of painstaking construction from Center for Disease Control reports, National Academy of Science reports that summarize the coast of coal. Lots of the research information that is at the core of the graphics and other parts of the film is also in the DVD extras. We’re painfully short of car crashes and erotic scenes and things that people might find more interesting.

(Q) : What kind of tactics you need to use for stopping the power and influence of companies like Massey Energy?

(Robert Kennedy JR) : I think that’s the central question posed by this film. And the real question is, “How do you get democracy to work?” What Massey is doing is illegal. In fact, Don Blankenship(Massey Energy chairman), when I debated him last year on TV, and I confronted him with 67,000 violations of the Clean Water Act that his company has admitted, and over five years, thousands of violations of other environmental, health and safety mining statutes he said to me that the industry cannot function without breaking the law. It’s a criminal enterprise and it’s heavily subsidized. They can’t function without giant vats of subsidies.

And the only way for them to continue to get the subsidies, to continue to break the law, is by dismantling democracy. They’ve done that in West Virginia. They’ve captured the agencies that are supposed to protect us from pollution. They’ve pretty much silenced the press. They’ve silenced opposition. And they’ve corrupted the politicians Republicans and Democrats and the judiciary that are supposed to be representing the public interest.

So the real question in this and all environmental issues is: “How do you get democracy to work?” What you have here is a small group of people who are confronted with this, who are patriotic Americans. They are coming from the mining industry, a waitress, a Marine. They believe what they’ve been taught in civics class. And they believe that the American government is working for them, the state government is working for them, corporations are performing a public-interest function.

All of a sudden, they’re confronted with the fact that everything is a lie, and that the system has been rigged against them. And instead of lying down and taking it, they decide to protect their rights and try to re-assert their democracy. And to me, that’s really the only answer. How do we get democracy to function? The way you get it to function is by informing the public. And that’s why this film is so important.

Investigative journalism has been relegated to a very, very tiny space now in America. We don’t really have much investigative journalism left. And the last refuge for it is documentary filmmaking. Nobody would know about the fracked industry in this country if it weren’t for the film “Gasland.” Most Americans learned about global warming from “An Inconvenient Truth.” So if Americans knew what was happening in West Virginia, I believe there’d be a revolution against it in the country, if there were widespread knowledge and indignation about it.

If you tried to do [mountaintop mining] in the Catskills or the Berkshires, you’d go to jail. If you tried to fill a hundred feet of the Hudson River, we would make sure you went to jail. The pubic would be outraged. But they filled 2,500 miles of rivers in West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. And if you’d cut down a single mountain in Sierra Nevada or the Berkshires, you’d go to jail.

But they cut down 500 mountains, 500 of the biggest mountains and they’ve flattened an area larger than the state of Delaware. So the only way they can get away with this massive criminal enterprise and this continental-scale environmental destruction is by hiding the truth from the American public. And so our job is to get the truth out. There are limited places you can do that now.

There’s been a devolution of the American press. We have the courts, we have the Obama administration, and we have a very, very good EPA administrator: Lisa Jackson, who’s probably the best in the history of that agency. And we have an administration that is largely sympathetic although there’s a lot more they should be doing to try and shut down mountaintop removal. Those are the mechanisms we have to work with.

The biggest and most important one is: “How do we inform the American public in an atmosphere where the press only wants to tell us a lot about Charlie Sheen but not much the issues that are actually important to us in making rational judgments in a democracy.”

(Q) : What can you say about the role of lobbyists?

(Robert Kennedy JR.): They’re running our government. There are actually more jobs in the wind industry than there are in coal mining. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are 86,000 people employed by the wind industry, and there are only 81,000 coal miners left in America.

Wind has the potential to produce many, many more jobs per kilowatt hour than coal. But the coal industry has tremendous political clout on Capitol Hill because of its alliance with the railroads, which have contributed a billion dollars over the last 10 years to political campaigns and the lobbyists— and because of its alliance with coal-burning utilities that have contributed over $300 million over the past decade to lobbyists and political campaigns. The coal industry itself, because it’s relatively small, has given only $84 million over the past 10 years to lobbying, but that still buys you a lot of juice on Capitol Hill.

(Q) :How do you plan to use “The Last Mountain” to get the word out to people about these issues?

(Bill Haney) : Speaking for myself, I think it’s substantially up to [the media]. The ugly reality, the economics go like this: “Thor” and his magic hammer or whatever it’s called is going to spend $40 million on marketing and we’re going to have $100,000. And both of us are going to try to get somebody to spend two hours or 90 minutes to sit down and look at a movie. And the ticket is going to cost the same each way.

So the work for democracy that you imagine in the history of this country and what you see in this film, I see it most powerfully in the grandfather. He’s not looking for trouble. He’s not a political activist. He’s a retired coal miner. He’s got a sick grandchild. And he thinks that it’s obviously from coal dust that you can scrape off the wall, going into the lungs of these kids.

There’s a cancer problem in the school. He calls the school board, but they stonewall, because they don’t want to piss off the powerful. So he calls his state rep. Same deal. He goes to the governor’s office. He will ultimately be led out in chains, with the 92-year-old grandmother in her wheelchair.

So what does he end up doing? He calls Channel 4 news. And when you see that scene of a former Marine, who’s retired to go fishing, is led off the bridge to Massey’s coal plant and locked up by the state troopers, that scene, which is reported by journalists, that’s the beginning of this movement.

That’s the beginning of what many people now describe as a modern-day Selma, where people are taking up civil disobedience in the most honorable way. These are people who are peacefully breaking the law, and accepting in a completely open and transparent way the consequences, unlike the corporations that are shrouding in dark concealment their destruction of the law, not being willing to bear the consequences, and leaving the rest of us to hold the bag. The courage of the activists and the reporting of the journalists is the way that we take our democracy back.

If you guys tell people that this is interesting, compelling stuff and by the way, dramatically engaging and inspiring, if you feel that way and they go see it, I don’t know how you feel, but my sense is that nobody is going to see it and say, “I don’t care about that. I don’t care if they poison 650,000 newborn babies every year. I don’t care if there are 10 million asthma attacks. I don’t care if there are 50,000 Americans who die prematurely.

By all means, take the purple mountains majesty that we inherited and obliterate it. Who cares? Who wanted freshwater fish in America without mercury? We’re glad for to poison people as long as they get big bonuses?”

So if people see the film, I have to imagine that they’re going to decide that this problem isn’t really a great thing. The way that they’re going to see it is if suggest to them that they do. And if you don’t, they won’t. And as filmmakers, the only thing we can do is make it the best that we know how and then hope that it all works out.

(Q) What can the average citizen do to help end to this problem?

(Bill Haney): I think if you are frustrated that the government isn’t enforcing the law and isn’t making the industry aware of the true cost of its production and economics. We watched the banking industry climb the risk curve, and if the risks paid off they gave themselves a billion dollars a person. And if the risks went the wrong way, the rest of us got left holding the bag. That’s what we’re seeing with the environmental consequences.

There’s a guy at Harvard named Paul Epstein, a professor, who just published a study suggesting that it’s $345 billion a year of health costs that Americans bear because of coal burning. $345 billion! That’s not counting the fact that in the known universe of hundreds of billions of planets, we know of one that sustains human life.
Everyone agrees that we’re doing a science experiment. Some people might think it will work out [well]; some people might think it will work out badly. Everyone knows that we’re doing a science experiment with Earth. And the No. 1, No. 2, No. 3, No. 4 contributors to it are the mining and burning of coal.

So you ask yourself, “What’s stopping us from acting responsibly?” The technology for alternatives exists today. The economics are compelling. The public health is compelling. Why would we maintain a focus on a 17th-century technology, when there are 21st-century alternatives that are both necessary and available? And the answer is what Bobby says: the subversion of democracy.