Film looks at effect of mining industry on U.S. landscape

By Olin Ericksen Daily Progress correspondent
Published: December 6, 2009

In the bitter war over mountaintop mining, the frontlines often shift — from courtrooms to Capitol Hill to the tiny Appalachia towns where neighbors clash.
This week, the debate is coming to Charlottesville.
“Coal Country” is a new documentary that will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday at Vinegar Hill Theatre. The screenings will be preceded by a discussion featuring two coalfield residents who are featured in the film — Kathy Selvage of Wise County and Larry Gibson of West Virginia. Tickets are $5 in advance, $7 at the door.
The film gives a view from the trenches of the more than 40-year struggle between environmental groups and the coal industry on the controversial practice of detonating mountaintops to get at cleaner, cheaper coal in states such as Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia and Virginia.

A fundraiser set for 5 p.m. Thursday at Siips Wine Bar will benefit a broad coalition of environmental groups that are working to halt the practice, including the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center and Appalachian Voices. Tickets are $40 and include a movie ticket, wine and hors d’oeuvres, live music and presentations by “Coal Country” producer Mari-Lyn Evans, Selvage and Gibson.
“If people in Charlottesville were aware of the destruction going on, I’m confident they would do something about the issue,” said Kayti Wingfield, coalition coordinator for the nonprofit group Wise Energy, which is spearheading the event.
“In the name of cheap energy, Charlottesville is also destroying these communities,” Wingfield said. “Once you destroy a mountain, that’s it.”

In addition to permanently reshaping mountains, environmental groups say mountaintop mining — also called surface mining — harms air quality, vegetation and wildlife. Most importantly, they say, the debris is often dumped into valleys or hollows, clogging waterways, which leads to flooding and ecological damage.
Mining officials counter that mountaintop mining is cheaper and safer than tunneling and its coal is lower in sulfur. While they admit that mountaintop mining alters landscapes and harms waterways, mining officials say it brings jobs to many areas where there are few, increases wages and keeps utility rates down.
“The [film directors] could be unaware that the U.S. is mired in the deepest recession since the Depression with the longest and highest unemployment record in 70 years,” said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association.
Popovich noted, as “Coal Country” does, that communities are divided, split between the long-term effects of the practice and many who consider it essential to their livelihood.
Groups opposed to mountaintop mining say the jobs come and go quickly and there are not enough coal reserves, especially coal in seams near the surface of mountains, for more than two to three decades of production, based on U.S. Energy Information Administration projections.
“We are not taking away jobs, we are out to create a sustainable future for Southwest Virginia,” Wingfield said.
Mountaintop mining now accounts for nearly 10 percent of the nation’s overall coal production, according to the EIA, and more than 50 percent in central Appalachia. Nearly half of all of the electricity in the United States comes from coal, according to the EIA.

To the dismay of groups such as the SELC, rule changes by the Bush administration and the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2007 have loosened regulations on mountaintop mining, especially how close debris can be dumped into waterways, known as buffer zones.
“The coal industry has gotten away with this outrageous mining practice for far too long, leaving the forests, waters and people of Southwest Virginia and elsewhere in near ruin,” said Marirose Pratt, an attorney with the SELC.
The SELC has a lawsuit pending against a Bush-era rule that removes stream protections in and near mountaintop removal sites.
While President Barack Obama’s administration has yet to formally weigh in on the issue, Interior officials said in November that state permits for mountaintop mining, as well as federal regulations, may need to be more heavily scrutinized.

On another front, a bill known as the Clean Water Protection Act is working its way through the House of Representatives. The bill, which 5th District Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Ivy, backs, would make it more difficult to dump debris from mountaintop mining in places such as valleys, where the debris might harm nearby water. Mining officials say if the bill passes, it would effectively make mountaintop mining cost-prohibitive.
In tiny towns like Wise, residents are watching the chess game closely. Many are concerned about their jobs. Others, such as Selvage, worry about what their surroundings will look like in the future.
“They blew up the mountain in front of my mother’s eyes … in front of her property,” Selvage said. “Lots of people talk about the economy, but how can I explain that to my children when they don’t have clean air to breathe or clean water to drink?”

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6 Responses to Film looks at effect of mining industry on U.S. landscape

  1. Randy Maggard says:

    Boy , I sure wish the makers of ” Coal Country ” had been truthful and told me they were making an ANTI- MINING promotional film…..I was told this would be a film similar to the ” The Appalachians ” and be balanced in it’s discussion of the issue…..boy was I wrong….
    By the way I am Randy Maggard… the person NEVER invited to participate in a panel discussion on the topic . I spent a great deal of personal time to provide the makers of this film the opportunity to view a mine sight up close…even filming the first blast shown in the film..Which by the way no residents complained about and was about a hundred miles from Kathy Selvage’s home…I guess you can do alot with editing film…but who needs facts?????
    My coworkers are PROUD of what they do and we don’t need a bunch of outsiders trying to portray us a rapers of the lands we work on . I tried to explain to the film makers why we surface mine the coal we do …..It can’t be mined any other way. …we also have deep mines on our operation. Our operation provides GOOD jobs and benefits to over 330 families and has been in operation since 1987 and has reserves to mine another 20 years …..if the government doesn’t make our livelihood ILLEGAL.
    Any comments????????

    Always objective,

    • Mari-Lynn Evans says:

      Again, I want to thank Randy Maggard and everyone else who participated with our film, Coal Country. Randy’s passion and commitment to his job clearly come through to viewers of our documentary. I cannot imagine any person making a more sympathic case for their point of view ( pro coal and pro MTR) than Randy did in the documentary.

      Both Phylis Geller, the Director, and I did everything we could to make a film that showed both sides of the debate over MTR. We used no narration, allowing each person interviewed in the documentary to tell their own story.

      I do want to clear up one of Randy’s expressed concerns over not being invited to be on panel discussions. We have had many events and screenings of the film. The events sponsored by the Sierra Club and Earthjustice were their events, paid for by them. Their selection of speakers was theirs and theirs alone.

      We have not been asked to speak or be on a panel discussion for any events sponsored by Massey Energy, or by Friends of Coal or any such group. Nor were any of the people in the film who would be labeled as “anti MTR”. We understand it is the right of those companies and groups to include or exclude us from events paid for by them. We continue to be available to any group wanting to screen Coal Country and to have us speak to the film.

      We are proud of our documentary, and the immense response to it. We are most grateful for Randy’s contribution and for that of all of the other people in the film. We hope that the views they expressed, and their stories, have expanded the discussion about MTR and of coal mining especially in the Appalachian coal fields.

  2. Randy Maggard says:

    I thought one of the purposes of your film was to try and open a dialogue between the to two sides. It would appear that both sides are guilty of ignoring the other sides point of view. The closest you came to that was the Charleston WV showing , which I have to admit was quite spirited but at least everyone was under one roof. Every showing since then has been Anti-coal with no speakers or panelist to present another point of view.
    I traveled ALL the way to Los Angeles on my on dime to hopefully be able to show another side to the viewers out there. But after viewing the ” EDITED” version with most of the procoal items cut I realized it was a lost cause.
    Any further comments?
    What does the Sierra Club and Earthjustice think all our employees will be doing if they can’t mine coal?…..Building Windmills…Installing solar panels…Get real.. they will either be on unemployement or moving to another state.
    Is that what they really want ? Are we just collateral damage?

    Any ideas?



    • Mari-Lynn Evans says:

      Thank you for your continued contribution to the discussion over MTR and coal mining in Appalachia.
      As a filmmaker, it was important for me to tell the stories of people living and working in the coal fields of Appalachia. I do hope that Coal Country has expanded the discussion about coal and MTR. We would welcome the opportunity to speak to any “pro coal” group or company and have made those overtures to them. They have declined all of them.
      I agree that our premier in Charleston was certainly spirited. When WV State Police and other law enforcement have to provide security at a film premier, clearly it is a heated issue. Coal Country has been cancelled in WV due to threats and”security concerns”. However it has successfully been shown on PLANET GREEN and in national theatres and screenings during the last months. From the response , it has indeed contributed to expanding the discussion about this issue.
      Like you, I hope Appalachians will not continue to be treated as collateral damage for the nation’s energy needs. We are a great people, we have contributed and sacrificed so much for the entire nation, and we (like every other region) deserve to have both jobs and a healthy environment.

      • Randy Maggard says:

        You still didn’t answer my question on what are our 335 employees and their families are supposed to do to make a living when the Obama EPA stops issuing permits and we run out of places to mine. Are they all supposed to go on unemployment or move to other states like you did. This will just cause the further reduction in population of West Virginia which is what the EPA wants anyway. Then maybe they could just turn the entire state into a park for city folk to come visit…..How’s that sound?

        Still Trying,

  3. Mari-Lynn Evans says:

    As you know, I am not a public official with the power to create alternative jobs for coal miners who may not have jobs in the future doing MTR. I wish I did have that power.
    Clearly, ecomonic development must be a priority for the region. Ecomonic development and job opportunies should have been considered by the government and the industry long before this criticial time in our history.
    In fairness to the groups opposed to MTR, they are the only ones (that I am aware of) that are spending their time and limited money to develop industries in the coal fields. With up to 80% of mineral rights in the coal fields owned by the coal companies, those companies must participate in expanding job opportunities in order for meaningful change and for ecomonic development to happen.
    We have identified the problem, the issues, and now it is the responsiblitity of those with power to act. Sen Rockefeller’s grandfather protected the Grand Tetons and helped create the national parks to save that land. No one in Jackson Hole WY discusses the desperate need to choose between the land and the people. The federal government supported the protection of those mountains and funded those efforts. That has not happened in the coal fields.
    My brother is a miner. I want him to have a job, and I want his children and grandchildren to have jobs and a healthy environment. Do we , as Appalachians, not deserve to have both jobs and an environment that supports our way of life? Must we continue to choose between working for the coal industry, seeking a low paying job, or leaving our beloved communities forever in order to feed our children?
    I agree with you that all of us must focus on jobs for the people of the coal fields. When it is the poorest of the poor living on the richest land in America, clearly there is something wrong. As you said before, these people are “collateral damage”. It is immoral for this to be the case.
    I am open to participating in any role that will contribute to a healthy economy and environment in the region.
    Thank you for your concern and I hope that you, too, will encourage the industry to develop sustaniable jobs for the folks living in the coal fields. As you know. MTR has actually cost jobs in the coal fields. Fewer miners are employed now than ever before. Machines now do the work of men. And many of those jobs are now non-union. In a generation, over 100,000 jobs in the mining industry have been lost as MTR has expanded.
    I love and honor Appalachia. I hope our contribution to the discussion on MTR and coal has been a positive one.

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