Mountaintop mining is cheaper than underground mining, says Kennedy. It’s permitted when coal companies promise they can safely remove all the debris they create and then re-plant the forests after the mine is exhausted.
But what really happens is just a cover up that puts a band-aid on the real extent of the damage. After the mountaintop is blown up it’s forgotten about and the companies simply move on to the next one, leaving the affected communities to fend for themselves.
The bottom line is that coal is both cheap and effective, a consideration that overrules all others, Kennedy says. Vested interests like America’s energy companies and its railroads have too much time and money invested to worry about its impact on the public’s health or the planet. If your paycheck depends upon you not understanding something, it’s amazing how blind you can become.
Change is on the horizon though, thanks to the growing concern of the Obama administration says Kennedy.
“We have the courts, we have the Obama administration, and we have a very good Environmental Protection Agency. There’s a lot more they should be doing, but they are largely sympathetic to trying to shut down mountain top removal.”
There’s a long road ahead before that reform happens, though. The Last Mountain begins, appropriately enough, at Coal River Mountain located deep in West Virginia in the valleys of Appalachia.
It is here that Massey Energy (the company behind the worst mining disaster in 40 years just last year) is literally removing mountaintops, one after another, in an environmentally devastating practice that mines coal as it contaminates the air and water, with no real intervention from Washington. And there’s a good reason for that, says Kennedy.
“Lobbyists are running our government. The coal industry has tremendous political clout on Capitol Hill because of its alliance with the railroads and coal burning utilities, which have contributed over billions to campaigns and lobbyists over the last 10 years,” Kennedy says.
“That buys you a lot of juice on Capitol Hill. One of the broader messages of this film is a warning to Americans about what happens when corporations take over our government.”
The good thing about being a Kennedy (there has got to be something) is that you understand how the levers of power work better than most. So The Last Mountain excels at delivering a staggering amount of information in an overtly cinematic way — lobbyists, politicians, environmental protection laws, mining jobs, energy needs, alternative innovations and the government all come into play.
But how do you interest a public who would much rather be watching American Idol?
“The biggest challenge we face is how do we inform the public what’s going on when the press these days only wants to tell us about Charlie Sheen and not much about the issues that are important to making rational judgments in a democracy,” says Kennedy.
There really is no more investigative journalism going on in America nowadays, Kennedy adds. Making documentaries has become the only way to get the word out about the mountaintop removal that’s being hidden away from the American public’s eyes.
The reason that Massey has been able to cut down 500 mountains in West Virginia and bury 2,500 miles of rivers and streams is because so far they been able to keep these images from the American public and the American press just doesn’t cover them. That’s why The Last Mountain was made.
There is hope for the future too. Alternative energy sources are rapidly overtaking coal in terms of effectiveness and job creation. Kennedy takes solace from the fact.
“There’s actually more jobs now in America in the wind industry than there are in coal mining, according to the bureau of labor statistics — 86,000 people are employed by the wind industry and only 81,000 people are employed by the coal mining industry,” says Kennedy.
It’s a numbers game, but it’s trending in Kennedy’s direction. That must be a sobering thought for the coal industries, who know that historically Kennedys only align themselves with the winning side.