Coal at the Movies
Classroom DVDs on coal and mountaintop removal mining
Dirty Business: “Clean Coal” and the Battle for Our Energy Future
By Peter Bull
(Center for Investigative Reporting, 2010)
Dirty Business is a long film for classroom use, but it is also the best and most comprehensive look at global dependence on coal, and explores some promising alternatives. The film is built around the work of Jeff Goodell, who wrote the important book Big Coal. Goodell begins with the devastating impact of coal mining in Appalachia. He remembers when he first saw the impact of mountaintop removal mining: “It was like the first time you look into a slaughterhouse after you’ve spent a lifetime of eating hamburgers.” The film travels to Mesquite, Nev., where residents are fighting a coal-fired plant, and also to China to explore the health impact of coal there—an important piece of the story not included in any of the other films reviewed here. The film’s strength is its exploration of alternatives to coal—wind, solar thermal, increased energy efficiency through recycling “waste heat”—which makes this a valuable resource for science as well as social studies classes. Thetreatment of carbon dioxide sequestration may confuse students; the film simultaneously suggests that this is a terrible idea in North America but a good one in China. But, on the whole, Dirty Business is a fine and lively overview of a complicated issue.
Burning the Future: Coal in America
By David Novack
(The Video Project, 2008)
Jim Hecker, of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, offers this summary near the opening of Burning the Future: “What we’re witnessing in Appalachia is probably the single most environmentally destructive activity in the United States today. Whole mountains are being chewed up and their waste is being dumped into nearby streams.” Burning the Future shows us how this affects people living in the mountains of West Virginia without presenting them simply as victims. The film could be subtitled “The Birth of a Community Organizer”: We watch Maria Gunnoe, one of the most compelling individuals in any of these films, as she turns her anger into activism. Chapter 4, which profiles the work of scientist Ben Stout, presents a wonderful example of science-for-society in action and could be used in biology or chemistry classes to show how “doing science” can make a real difference in people’s lives. In chapter 6, coal country residents come to realize that their drinking water is killing them, and they commit themselves to do something about it. (See “Got Coal” for descriptions of chapters 2 and 8.) Burning the Future does not have much to say about climate change, and it waxes a bit nostalgic about “real” underground coal mining. Nonetheless, this is a rich classroom resource that prompts students to think about where our electricity comes from. Each chapter is roughly 12 minutes long.
Deep Down: A Story from the Heart of Coal Country
By Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin
Deep Down offers an intimate look at what happens as neighbors are pitted against each other when a coal company proposes to strip-mine in the hills above Maytown, Ky. The film is built around Beverly May, who is determined to resist the coal company, and Terry Ratliff, who could sorely use the money the coal company is offering to lease some of his land for coal mining. The filmmakers present Ratliff’s indecision with sympathy, even as we cheer May’s tireless efforts to save her community. At a hearing, May addresses the miners, whose livelihoods depend on continued mining:“I would like you to know that I work in a small clinic that takes care of people who are poor and who don’t have insurance. I see every day many of your brothers. You are not my enemy. And I’m not yours. We are all victims of the same coal companies. It’s just that you’re on the top of the mountain and I’m down at the bottom. We are not enemies.” As an antidote to cynicism, I wish that every student in the country could meet the dedicated and compassionate Beverly May. Deep Down may be too slow, too “small” a story to hold some students’ attention, but this is a rare and remarkable teaching resource that shows the nitty-gritty process of organizing: the meetings, petitions, one-on-one conversations, phone calls, and demonstrations. The courage of Maytown residents is palpable. As one resident testifies late in the film: “Just imagine a society that is dependent on blowing up mountain after mountain after mountain. That there is a group of people that decided to stand up against it, that is exceptional.”
The Mountaintop Removal Road Show
The Mountaintop Removal Road Show is a collection of slide shows and clips from videos that offer a critical look at the impact of mountaintop removal coal mining. Some of these feel like home movies and lack the production values that students expect. But what they lack in professional polish they make up for in authenticity. Most useful for the classroom is probably the 20-minute “Hidden Destruction of the Appalachian Mountains,” a poignant overview of mountaintop removal mining’s impact on people and the environment. The slide show ends with some examples of resistance by mountain communities and their allies.
The 10-minute “McRoberts Residents Speak Out About TECO” is another piece that may be valuable to use in class. It offers startling images of the effects of mining-triggered flooding and the voices of residents who describe what this means for their lives.
The final segment, “Wake Up, Freak Out—Then Get a Grip,” does not mention mountaintop removal or mining of any kind, but is a clever cartoon overview of the causes of and threats posed by global warming.
The Electricity Fairy
By Tom Hansell
The title of this film comes from a former commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Natural Resources: “They reach out and flip the switch and the light comes on. Well, there’s not a magic electricity fairy. That electricity comes from a power plant that feeds on coal.” The Electricity Fairy is built around the struggle against the construction of a coal-fired power plant in Wise County, Va., one of the poorest counties in the state. Because the film takes an expansive look at coal mining and the use of coal to fuel the rise of a consumer culture in the United States, it could be especially useful in U.S. history classes. We meet some imaginative activists, including Kathy Selvage of the Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and student activist Marley Green, who delivers a powerful speech in opposition to the planned Dominion Virginia Power coal plant: “Coal is climate change. Coal is the mercury in our water, the asthma in our lungs, the soot in our air. . . . Coal is the pusher that keeps America addicted, and the mountain destroyer that leaves the majesty of Appalachia a lifeless moonscape. We’re trying out for a new world. Where bombs aren’t dropped on our mountains, where streams aren’t poisoned, and our society puts people before profit, and the health of communities before the convenience of suburbia.” An important theme of the film is the seeming paradox that Appalachia is one of the most resource-rich areas of the country, yet also is home to some of the poorest people.
On Coal River
By Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood
(Downriver Media, 2011)
In an emotional scene in On Coal River, Ed Wiley drops his granddaughter off at Marsh Fork Elementary School. As he drives away from the school, he says: “I tell you what, it’s hard to let your child off at this place, knowing the dangers that’s here. It’s not right.” Tears roll down his cheeks. The dangers at Marsh Fork are manifold: a 2.8 billion-gallon lake of toxic coal slurry sits above the school, held back by an earthen dam; coal dust from a nearby coal processing plant coats the playground and sidewalks around the school; the community’s water is poisoned by mountaintop removal coal mining in the region and the “cleaning” of the coal in preparation for its shipment to coal-fired power plants; mountaintop removal explosions are nerve-jarring and put the earthen dam at continuous risk. But On Coal River is not just an exposition of the problems associated with mountaintop removal: We learn about the breadth of the problems through the work of the activists who tenaciously challenge the coal industry. One of the “stars” of On Coal River is Judy Bonds, the passionate organizer who became one of the most outspoken mountaintop removal opponents; she died recently at age 58. The film is long and may be too slow for some classes. But in its attention to the details of one struggle in one small community, it tells a gigantic story. Late in the film, it dawns on one of the community activists, Bo Webb, that “we’re on a mission to save the planet.” It’s no exaggeration. Struggles like On Coal River allow us to explore with students how local environmental justice work connects to the fight for planetary survival.
Mountaintop Removal Resistance
There are numerous groups fighting mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia. Some of these have valuable teaching resources at their sites:
Appalachian Center for Economy and the Environment: http://www.appalachian-center.org
Coal River Mountain Watch: www.crmw.net
I Love Mountains: Ilovemountains.org
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth: www.kftc.org
Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition: www.ohvec.org
Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards: http://www.samsva.org.