Appalachia's 'Last Mountain' illuminates Bellingham's coal battle

The Last Mountain, a film opening this week in Seattle, connects mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia's Coal River Mountain with a high-stakes environmental debate over Bellingham's proposed coal port. 

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An aerial view of mountaintop removal and reclamation landscapes.

The Last Mountain, a film opening this week in Seattle, connects mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia's Coal River Mountain with a high-stakes environmental debate over Bellingham's proposed coal port. 

At first glance, the film The Last Mountain seems a stark but distant look at the mining practice referred to as 'Mountaintop Removal,' happening far from the Pacific Northwest. Realizing that coal is being harvested at the cost of the complete, irreparable decimation of over a million acres of forest is bad news for sure, but understanding that coal may be exported to China through a proposed port near Bellingham suddenly brings this issue to a very local level.

Author, environmentalist, and founder of Bill McKibben spoke at Town Hall Seattle, June 1, on his way back from Bellingham, just as “The Last Mountain” was showing at the Seattle International Film Festival. The author of “The End of Nature” and New York Times Bestseller, “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet” had this to say at a Bellingham Rally on May 31, 2011:

“Bellingham suddenly has a crucial role to play in the most important fight on the planet. There's no other place I can think of where a small group of people will determine as much about how much carbon gets into the atmosphere as right here.”

This film is about saving Coal River Mountain, specifically: The last mountain with the capacity to generate wind energy and transcend a cycle of destructive consumption.

The fact that “The Last Mountain” is now background material for a fight just heating up in the Northwest further underscores the global connectivity of environmental and social justice issues. The tremendous heart of the Appalachian community, working for change with activists and non-profit organizations is an extraordinary story of ordinary people. Director Bill Haney takes us right into the lives of those struggling to save heritage and home near Coal River Mountain. As it turns out, "their fight" really is "our fight."

Producer Clara Bingham, a Kentucky native, author, and veteran reporter, collaborated with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., his Waterkeeper Alliance, and Director Bill Haney to investigate the true nature of coal and Massey Energy’s work in the Coal River Mountain region. What they found on this journey includes the complete decimation of entire mountains directly above residential neighborhoods, grade schools a stone’s throw from coal operations and a government deeply enmeshed with the coal industry.

“The Last Mountain” is an American story, and so it is particularly fitting that it includes snippets of Kennedy family history, including reference to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s early work on water and labor protection and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s perseverance in creating laws that protect critical water resources—which keeps communities alive—like the pending reinstatement of the ‘fill rule’ which prevents the dumping of mining waste into streams and lakes, as well the full ban on mountaintop removal mining.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks of his father’s commitment to unions and workers, while Haney takes the cameras to workers and shows how corporations, while speaking about providing jobs and benefits, have systemically removed both.

To date, mountain top removal mining has destroyed 500 Appalachian mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2000 miles of streams.

“The Last Mountain” is an eye-opening documentary about what really happens when we flip on the light switch. This may look like a regional struggle, but it is actually an American energy story: Nearly half of the electricity produced in the US is still coming from coal, and 30 percent of this is from Appalachia. Burning coal is the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide. In a talk at the 2010 Good Jobs, Green Jobs Conference, McKinstry CEO Dean Allen discussed the simple numbers. 70% of electricity the US uses is going into buildings. 50% of this energy is currently wasted.

The Pacific Northwest has within reach decisive contributions to America’s energy future. “The Last Mountain” informs viewers of coal’s destructive origins, enlarging the debate to a global scale.

"The carbon that's coming out of this coal is the thing that's driving global warming," Bill McKibben explained to the citizens of Bellingham. "That will do more environmental damage than anything that human beings have ever figured out how to do. We are fundamentally transforming the planet around us, and that is a … radical act. Any conservative should be fighting hard to keep this planet in somewhat the same shape it was in when they were born.”

“The Last Mountain” opens July 15 at The Varsity Theatre in Seattle.


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