Burning the Future: Coal in America

Directed by David Novack, 89 minutes

In Review

Coal generates more than half of all the electricity in the US. And, as the coal industry’s dirtiest secrets are exposed, coal also generates increased public opposition every day.

Many of coal’s biggest opponents are residents of southern West Virginia, where mining companies engage in the particularly nasty form of extractions known as “mountaintop removal.” The practice’s name is hardly representative of the activity. It’s much less “removal” than it is total destruction; and it’s not just the “mountaintop” that is obliterated, it’s the entire mountain.

Traditional coal-mining methods meant going underground to extract the mineral — an expensive and tedious process. During the past decade, however, coal companies have found it to be much less costly to simply dynamite the mountain away and then scrape away the freshly revealed coal seams. Every day in West Virginia, three million pounds of dynamite are used to clear away mountains that have stood for centuries. The devastation extends beyond simply destroying a mountain that can never be replaced. The rocks that once hid the coal are dumped into valleys, covering streams and forests. The blackwater that is the by-product of washing the coal “clean” is also left behind: Billions of gallons of coal slurry wait behind flimsy walls. Eventually, the sludge either bursts through and floods away communities, as happened in 1972 in Buffalo Creek, killing 124 people, or leaches a poisonous soup of lead and arsenic into wells and drinking supplies, taking people’s lives slowly.

Burning the Future: Coal in America does a wonderful job of illustrating the effects of the coal industry on the lives of ordinary people in West Virginia. Among the people featured in the documentary are Maria Gunnoe, Donetta Blankenship, and Larry Gibson – uncomplicated people whose families have lived in West Virginia for generations. All have taken on roles they never saw themselves fulfilling as their communities struggle to save the culture that is being threatened. Suddenly their lives have become very complicated because of the greed of coal companies and the lack of vision of this country’s political leadership, which has yet to decrease our reliance on a dirty source of cheap energy and create a cleaner path.

photo of power plant cooling towers above a suburban front yard Still from Burning the Future As coal-country residents become anti-coal activists, they
face opposition from neighbors who aren’t convinced there
is a problem.

As these individuals become activists, they face not only opposition from the coal companies, but also from some members of their own communities. Seeing copper-colored water, contaminated by coal slurry, pour out of their taps isn’t enough to convince some people that there is a problem. Some would rather accept the coal industry’s PR spin that environmentalists and activists are determined to do little more than take away people’s livelihoods. In impoverished communities in West Virginia, this divisive argument effectively turns neighbor upon neighbor, preventing them from having a greater voice, and allowing the companies to continue their filthy business. Ironically, as coal-mining operations rely more heavily on technology, the number of miners in the US has decreased. According to statistics published by the National Mining Association, there were 704,793 miners in the US in 1923; in 1973, just 50 years later, that figure was 148,121. In 2007, it was down to 81,278.

Burning the Future cleverly and humorously juxtaposes words and images to get its message across. For example, scenes of bulldozers dumping tons of rock into valleys once abundant with life roll as Roger Lilly, a spokesman from Walker Machinery, talks about the coal industry’s “small and gentle footprint on the scenic beauty of West Virginia.” Lilly makes it sound like the coal companies’ use of his firm’s machinery during mountaintop removal actually improves the landscape: “As they run the ‘dozers to put the land back, it’s almost an artistic activity, to watch as they sculpt the mountains in really a great manner.”

With the coal-friendly Bush administration gone, now is the time for a much-needed debate about this country’s renewable energy needs. If public outrage about the horrific environmental destruction occurring in coal country doesn’t turn the discussion around, the future for West Virginia – and indeed for all the US – will be as black as the coal the country currently runs on.

—Audrey Webb

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