The Growing Political War Surrounding Coal Mining Is a 'Fight About Democracy'
We speak with environmental activist Robert Kennedy, Jr., and filmmaker Bill Haney about the new documentary, The Last Mountain, which premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival. The film chronicles the fight against coal mining across Appalachia and Massey Energy’s devastating practice of mountaintop removal to extract layers of coal. "They have to break the law to do this. They cannot survive in the marketplace without violating the law. They violate labor laws. They violate health and safety laws. And by their own records, they’ve had some 67,000 violations of just one of the environmental statutes," says Kennedy of the coal giant that has tremendous political influence at the state and federal level. “It’s not just about the environmental destruction, it’s also about subverting democracy.”
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a conversation with environmentalist Robert Kennedy, Jr., and filmmaker Bill Haney. I spoke to them at the Sundance Film Festival in January in Park City, Utah, where Bill Haney’s film The Last Mountain premiered. The film looks at coal mining and Massey’s devastating practice of mountaintop removal.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: An explosive power the size of a Hiroshima bomb once a week.
MARIA GUNNOE: They just keep this process up until they literally reduce the mountain to rubble.
BO WEBB: Coal River Mountain is our last great mountain that hasn’t been blasted to ashes.
DR. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Massey Coal, the single most destructive coal mining company in history.
ED WILEY: That’s your coal dust.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: And that’s what the inside of the kids’ lungs are going to look like.
JOE LOVETT: People have had enough, and they’re standing up to the coal company.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: The fight over Coal River Mountain is a fight about democracy.
MARIA GUNNOE: Robert Kennedy, Jr., is lending his voice.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: How can Massey Coal have 60,000 violations, and nobody in the state came and stopped them?
ED WILEY: We want our kid in a safe, new school.
JENNIFER HALL-MASSEY: National average for a brain tumor is one in 100,000. And we have six that live side by side. The only thing we have in common is the fact that we all have well water.
DR. ALLEN HERSHKOWITZ: Mountaintop coal mining is literally threatening the water supplies of tens of millions of people.
MARIA GUNNOE: We live in a very intelligent country that has the ability to create energy without blowing up mountains.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: We’re looking at a proposal now to construct a wind farm in Coal River Mountain.
MARIA GUNNOE: That’s our last mountain. That’s the last one we have.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Corporations to not want democracy. They want profits.
BO WEBB: They’re bound and determined to knock the mountain down. We’re bound and determined to stop it.
JOE LOVETT: It’s either them or Massey, and Massey’s been winning for a long time.
MARIA GUNNOE: Coal is mean. Coal is cruel. And coal kills. The American people need to find their position. You’re connected to coal, whether you realize it or not. Everybody is connected to this. And everybody is causing it, and everybody’s allowing that.
UNIDENTIFIED: Let them hear your voice in that building back there!
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: If the American people could see it, there would be a revolution in this country.
AMY GOODMAN: Coal mining in West Virginia. The film’s director is here, Bill Haney, as well as Robert Kennedy, Jr. He is the founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance, and he is one of the people who is featured in this film. Very important today, as we see the latest report that’s come out on Massey, holding Massey Coal Company responsible for the terrible explosion that took place last year and took the lives of 29 miners.
Bill, let’s begin with you. First of all, talk about why you call your film The Last Mountain, and fit it into the context of this latest explosion of Massey.
BILL HANEY: Well, The Last Mountain is a film about the fight for the last great mountain in Central Appalachia between the mining company Massey, that wants to blow it up and strip the coal inside, and the locals, who want to stop them and build a wind farm on top instead. And it’s a story about citizen democracy. It’s about the extraordinary group of, you know, waitresses and former Marines and former coal miners, who have come together and enlisted the help of folks like Bobby Kennedy, Jr., to try to fight for their rights. And it’s a story about the future of energy, because the ugly paw of the coal industry lies heavy upon our political system and on our environment. So that’s why we called it The Last Mountain, because they’ve already knocked down, with explosives the size of a Hiroshima bomb being dropped on Appalachia every week -- they’ve already taken 500 of these mountains down to rubble and dumped the residuals into the rivers, contaminating 2,000 miles of federal river, and there’s not much left.
AMY GOODMAN: And Massey, in particular, this coal company, one of the largest in the United States? And relate The Last Mountain to what -- the Upper Big Branch explosion that took place.
BILL HANEY: Well, I think that Massey controls all the mountains in the Coal River Valley, including Coal River Mountain that’s at the center of our story. It’s the largest practitioner of this most egregious form of mining, mountaintop removal. And it’s been operated in a way that seems to be wildly beyond the bounds of federal constraint and state constraint for quite some time. So their history of safety violations and environmental violations is so long as to be dizzying. And they, you know, for many, many years appear to have decided that it was less expensive to pay the fines and sort out something with the political system than it was to actually comply with the environmental rules or the Clean Water Act or safety standards. And so, horrible as the Big Branch explosion was, it was utterly predictable. In fact, I was doing interviews right before it took place, and every interview I did, who were talking about the history of Massey’s safety violations, would say, "It’s going to happen again. It’s going to happen again soon." And literally months later, there it was.
The same thing with their environmental practices. You know, they had -- the federal law says that if you violate the Clean Water Act, it’s a $31,000 fine. In a six-year period, they agreed that they had 60,000 violations, almost $1.8 billion in fines. The state EPA refused to do anything. The federal EPA took a very long time and ultimately agreed to a fine of $20 million, which was less than one percent of actually what was required by the federal statutes. And in the six months after that, Massey came up with another 4,000 violations. So it would appear to be a company that used its profits to buy political influence and to operate a system in a system that was almost entirely outside the law. So it’s an example -- we see other examples in the coal industry, but it’s a particularly egregious example. And the brutality that they are bringing to the landscape of Appalachia and to the communities of Appalachia is extraordinary.
And they do it by talking about -- that they’re going to protect jobs or they’re going to have domestic security -- domestically secure energy sources. But there are, of course, wildly more cost-effective and healthy other domestic sources of energy, like wind and solar. And the employment that they provide is actually quite small. They’ve been probably the leader -- the United Mine Workers would say the leader -- in destroying the unions in the system. So, at the time the CEO is making $30 million a year --
AMY GOODMAN: Don Blankenship.
BILL HANEY: Don Blankenship -- you know, there are miners working there who are getting a pathetic fraction of what they would have gotten even 10 years ago when they had protection with the unions. So, they’ve destroyed the unions, they’ve beaten up on the environment, they’ve violated federal health and safety standards, to what appears to be really the enrichment of a very small number of people, primarily the executives of the company.
AMY GOODMAN: Bobby Kennedy, you’re a major focus of this film because of your work in West Virginia taking on the coal companies. When did you go down originally? What have you been doing there?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I’ve been involved in the industry, in the coal industry in West Virginia, on and off for 27 years. I was invited down about three or four years ago by the local group at Coal Mountain to help them in their battle to save this last mountain, as Bill says.
Massey Coal is the third largest coal company in the country, but it is by far the biggest practitioner of mountaintop removal mining. Over the past decade, they have leveled an area of the Appalachians the size of Delaware, 1.4 million acres. They’ve cut down 500 of the biggest mountains in the state. And they’ve buried, as Bill said, thousands of miles of rivers and streams.
They have to break the law to do this. They cannot survive in the marketplace without violating the law. They violate labor laws. They violate health and safety laws. And by their own records, they’ve had some 67,000 violations of just one of the environmental statutes. But they’re in violation of many, many other environmental statutes. Last year, I debated Don Blankenship in West Virginia in front of a statewide audience, a televised debate. And I asked him during the debate, "Is it possible for you to do your job without breaking the law?" And he said, "No, it is not." So this is a criminal enterprise, even by his own estimation.
As Bill says, you know, one of the things that they always say in West Virginia is, "Well, coal brings jobs and prosperity to the state." But this is one of the things that my father explained to me when I was 14 years old and he was fighting strip mining in Appalachia. He said, "This ought to be the richest state in the union because of the huge resources they have in West Virginia. But it’s the 49th poorest population, because the benefits of coal do not help the people of the state of West Virginia."
And if you look at the way that Massey operates, Massey doesn’t want to hire -- it won’t hire unions. Its whole business plan has been to break the United Mine Workers, which it succeeded in doing in the state. When I was a little kid, there was 151,000 coal miners in West Virginia taking coal out of tunnels in the ground. Today there are fewer than 18,000 left in the state, and most of them aren’t unionized, because the strip industry isn’t, because Massey broke the unions. They’re taking more coal out of West Virginia than they were in 1968, but the money is not staying in the state for salaries or pensions or reinvestment in the community. It goes straight up to Wall Street. Ninety-five percent of the coal in West Virginia is owned by out-of-state interests. And Massey doesn’t like to hire -- it won’t hire union labor, but not only that, it doesn’t like to hire people who have a union culture. So it won’t hire, if it can help it, West Virginians. So it advertises in Myrtle Beach, in the Atlanta Constitution, in USA Today, to bring people into the state. They work on these sites, cutting down the mountain. It takes about six years for them to cut down a mountain, and then they move someplace else.
They buy up the communities. They’ve bought up dozens and dozens of communities. They board up the houses. They make the people sign contracts saying that they’ll never come back within 20 miles of that community. And they empty the landscapes of people. So then, when they come to us and say, "Well, we’re bringing prosperity in West Virginia," what we say to them is, "Why is it that the places with the most coal in the state are the places with the poorest people? How can you bring prosperity to a community when you’re emptying the community?"
Well, this film is about a group of people in West Virginia who said, "We’re not leaving. We’re going to stay here. We’re going to protect our mountains." And they climbed up trees and built tree houses. They confronted the industry. They walked -- they demonstrated in front of -- they walked into the governor’s office. They had public demonstrations.
You know, one of the things that -- one of the reasons that I’m interested in what’s happened in West Virginia and that Bill really got interested in doing the film here is that it’s not just about the destruction of the environment. It’s about the subversion of democracy. And wherever you see widespread environmental injury, you’re also going to see the subversion of democracy. And West Virginia is really the template for that dynamic. You’ll see the destruction of the public process at the local level, where people no longer have a say in the allocation of the public trust, the resources of the commons. You’ll see the destruction of transparency in government. You’ll see the capture of the agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution. They become -- in West Virginia, the West Virginia DEP has become the sock puppet for the industry that it’s supposed to regulate. You’ll see the widespread corruption of public officials, which you’ve also seen. Virtually every relevant public official in the state of West Virginia is now an indentured servant for the coal industry. And you’ll also see the destruction of the press and the role of the fourth estate. And again, in West Virginia you see the press largely blind, holding a blind eye to this wholesale destruction of the landscapes and to the people whose lives are being destroyed in this process that’s making a few people rich by systematically impoverishing virtually everybody else in the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kennedy, environmental lawyer, speaking to Democracy Now! at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, along with film director Bill Haney. He is -- his film is called The Last Mountain. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return to my conversation with Robert Kennedy, the environmental lawyer, and Bill Haney, the film director, who premiered The Last Mountain at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Bill Haney.
BILL HANEY: The way the industry justifies this, because it can’t justify taking 60 percent of the profits to themselves, and it’s difficult to justify the environmental devastation, it’s that it says it’s all about jobs. But in reality, all the economic studies show that West Virginia, for every dollar of benefit from the coal industry, localized benefit, they spend five dollars. Same study has been done in Kentucky, had the same result. We’re beginning a transition, so there’s natural gas jobs in West Virginia than there are coal jobs already, and there’s more wind jobs in America today than there are coal jobs. So the notion that we can’t move into renewables in a way that actually promotes job growth -- you know, progressive, thoughtful job growth -- is absurd. And it’s just part of a long set of disinformation campaigns that the coal industry practices, starting with the idea there’s such a thing as clean coal, which is a farce, and all the way back to the notion that they are actually involved in creating sustainable jobs in a long-term way, when in fact they’re investing in massive explosives to get rid of jobs. That is part of distracting the public from the simple issues, which are that the coal industry is 50 percent of the electricity in the country, 50 percent of the rail traffic in the country, but, broadly defined, spending a billion-and-a-half dollars every 10 years to make friends with politicians who will distort the regulatory and legal process to support them.
AMY GOODMAN: So, we’re talking, the coal industry, a powerhouse in lobbying --
BILL HANEY: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: -- trains and utilities.
BILL HANEY: And the utilities have become -- a small number of utilities, which are coal-burning plants, have become unbelievably profitable because when the environmental standards were passed in the '70s, all the plants, which were presumed to be going out of business soon, were exempt from complying with wide pieces of the Clean Air Act, and then, as a result, became wildly more profitable and have been kept going for 50 years as a result. And so, enormous pieces of the arsenic that's dumped into American families, the lead emissions that we pick up, the mercury that’s contaminating riverways across the country, the carbon dioxide emissions, sulfur, nitrous oxide, ground-level ozone, is coming out of this small number of coal-fired power plants, which are spending enormous money to prevent themselves from being regulated in a way that would force them to be on a level playing field with solar plants or wind power plants or geothermal plants, and therefore lose.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the power of the politicians in West Virginia? For example, Joe Manchin -- and you feature him in the film -- who was the governor, now the senator, of West Virginia.
BILL HANEY: You know, it’s a fascinating thing that even in the state of West Virginia, the politicians aren’t listening to the public. Even in West Virginia, with its long history of connection to the coal industry, and with the long history of the coal industry trying to wrap the flag of patriotism around the coal industry -- so when I go to a coal industry rally to film, and I look like a progressive filmmaker, all the -- what everybody’s being given is a bumper sticker saying "I love coal" and a flag. And the guy says to me, as I walk up, he goes, "Well, you know, you wouldn’t want these." And I said, "Well, I’d like the flag." But they don’t give out the flag without the coal mining sticker. So two-thirds of the people in the state of West Virginia, as presently polled, are against mountaintop mining. So, even within the state, the politicians are allowing the tyranny of the minority to actually overwhelm the democratic process.
AMY GOODMAN: And, you know, I’m thinking about John Grisham’s remarkable book The Appeal, which is based on the story of the buying of judges. Bobby Kennedy, what about judges in West Virginia and Massey Energy?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, again, you have virtually all of the political figures in the state who appear to have been corrupted by the industry now. I’m a practicing attorney, and I practice in front of the bar in West Virginia, and there’s ethical standards that prohibit attorneys from impugning sitting judges. But the Supreme Court itself has said -- the United States Supreme Court has, in one of the few times in its history, remanded a case to the state of West Virginia because the appearance of corruption by West Virginia judges, particularly by Massey Coal’s influence on West Virginia judges. And in one case, one of the Supreme Court justices, Justice Benjamin, was the beneficiary of $3 million of private money spent by Massey CEO Don Blankenship to defeat his opponent, who had ruled against Don Blankenship in a dispute with another coal company. Blankenship then appealed in front of the judge that his money had helped elected and got that case reversed. Shortly -- during the pendency of that case, Don Blankenship, again, the CEO of Massey, was photographed on the French Riviera on vacation with Justice Spike Maynard, who was another justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court, who was also hearing that case. So there’s at least a strong, strong appearance of impropriety even within the judiciary in the state of West Virginia.
AMY GOODMAN: How is this legal? I mean, isn’t there something called conflict of interest?
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, there’s conflict of interest. The problem -- you know, what we see in the state of West Virginia is all of the democratic safeguards have been eroded. The press doesn’t do its job in West Virginia. The press essentially consistently publishes the talking points for the industry. The industry is so powerful in the state, and it’s been able to persuade many people in the state, even people who aren’t directly getting money from the industry, that the industry is vital to the future of West Virginia.
And one of the things that they’ve been able to do and one of the conflicts that you see in this film is the local people at Coal Mountain want to build a wind farm. The wind farm will bring in $1.6 or $1.5 million in tax revenue to their county every year. If they cut down the mountains, you can’t build a wind farm, because the wind is up on top of these mountains. If they cut down the mountains, the coal industry, for six years, will get $30,000 a year -- give $30,000 a year in taxes, create almost no jobs locally. The wind farms will create large amounts of job and permanently, forever, give one-and-a-half million dollars in taxes.
So, West Virginia has a lot of alternatives. The problem is, the coal industry has consistently and systematically blocked other types of economic development from coming into the state, so that they can say to the people and to the press of the state, "We are your only alternative. The only thing a West Virginian can do to make money is to work for us in our coal mines. And you’re not even going to have a union to protect you." And in fact, mountaintop removal coal mining is incompatible with any other kind of economic development. Nobody is going to move their business to a coal field, when there are explosives going off that’s showering toxic dust onto your business, where you have the explosive power every week in the coal fields of West Virginia and eastern Kentucky that is the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb once a week, that shake the earth, that break the foundation -- shatter the foundations of these rivers, that cause cracks in the earth to appear, that dry up the rivers, that poison the water. None of -- who wants to move to a state where that kind of stuff is going on? Of course, no business is going to do it. West Virginia is ideally located. It’s one of the most beautiful spots on earth, and certainly in this country. But it hasn’t been able to attract other businesses, and it’s mainly because of Big Coal.
AMY GOODMAN: You have a segment of the film with Joe Manchin. Explain what was going on. Then he was the governor.
BILL HANEY: Well, there’s two pieces. I mean, we actually tried to give the head of the West Virginia Coal Association an ample opportunity to explain their point of view, and I think I’ve reflected it fairly to you here. And Governor Manchin professes with enthusiasm, in a big public setting, that he is a friend of coal and that he can’t imagine how anybody could not be a friend of coal.
And then we watch as the locals come to protest. For example, the coal industry, when you mine the coal, you have to wash it. And the washing, you take some of the toxins out, so you ship the hydrocarbons to the power plants. The three biggest dams in our hemisphere -- Hoover, Ixtapa Falls and Brushy Fork in West Virginia, holding 9.8 billion gallons of toxic metal sludge left over from coal washing in one of 300 of these pits all over West Virginia. One of these pits hovers above an elementary school. And so, in our film, a grandfather, who was a coal miner for Massey, his granddaughter lives next to this coal platform, and he’s getting really sick. And they’re worried that this leaking dam could come down and wipe these kids out. And these dams have broken before. He goes to the governor. And the governor, you know, meets him and glad-hands him and then says, "I’ll work on it. I’ll do the best I can." He says, "Well, what does that actually mean? I’ve been here three times over five years." And he goes, "Well, whatever the best I can, I’m going to do that." And he moved to get himself posed in the picture.
And we then go to see him talking to the environmental regulators in the state. So, there’s -- as we discussed, the federal EPA creates laws and the regulatory standards, and the state is supposed to enforce them. And we see him talking to the DEP officials, and he says, "So the way we want to work this is, you know, you go out and talk to a business. If you find a violation, give them some suggestions and see if you can make it back sometime. And if it looks like they’re thinking about it or they’re trying, well, that’s good enough. I mean, they don’t have to actually do it. They just have to talk about doing it." So, Governor Manchin, you know, appears to be well connected to the coal industry, enthusiastic about supporting it, and less concerned about the needs of some of the people in the state.
And as you say, he’s now a senator, and he became elected senator, one of the -- you know, in a close race. And the most important campaign piece he had was him firing a rifle shot into the cap-and-trade legislation, so that you saw environmental standards, progressive environmental standards, being blown apart in a militaristic display by the governor of the state of West Virginia.
AMY GOODMAN: And now talk about the new governor.
BILL HANEY: And the new governor doesn’t seem to be any different. He has just called, even in the wake of this horrible tale in Tucson, with national calls to tamp down the inflamed language that many think contributed to that tragedy, he’s just called for -- there’s a call to arms in West Virginia to bring the coal miners up to face and to rally against people who are suggesting environmental standards ought to be thoughtfully applied to them. And I will say, some of the activists, including, for example, the waitress who is at the core of our story, made an appeal to the audience yesterday, or two days ago, saying, you know, she hopes people will write their congressmen because, frankly, she thinks people will be killed during these rallies, and she thinks she might be one of them.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Governor Tomblin.
BILL HANEY: This is Governor Tomblin. So the atmosphere of conflict -- you know, when you have a period of economic vulnerability, you’re talking to minors’ families, and you’re telling them, "The only way you can make a living is mining. This woman right here is trying to stop you from mining and taking care of your children. And we have a call to arms against her," you know, that is certainly an inflamed environment.
AMY GOODMAN: Speaking of kids, let’s go to another clip in The Last Mountain. This is Bobby Kennedy.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: I have three sons who have asthma. We know that asthma attacks are caused by bad air, by ozone and particulates. And the principal source of those materials in our atmosphere are hundreds of coal-burning power plants that are burning coal illegally. It’s been illegal for 18 years. Under the Clean Air Act, they were supposed to remove those materials from their emissions 18 years ago. But in states where corporations can easily dominate the state political landscapes, they were not required to comply with the law, so there’s hundreds of them that are violating this critical law.
But this is an industry that donated enormous amounts to President Bush during the 2000 cycle. And one of the first things that the Bush administration did when it came into office was to abolish the new source rule. This was the most important rule in the entire Clean Air Act. It is the heart and soul of that statute. And that’s the rule that required those coal-burning power plants to clean up their emissions 18 years ago. So now I’m going to be able to watch my children gasping for air on bad air days, because somebody gave money to a politician.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bobby Kennedy talking about his children having asthma. Talk more about it. Bobby is right here with us.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY, JR.: Well, three of my sons have asthma. The single greatest trigger for asthma attacks is ozone and particulates that are emitted from coal-burning power plants. There are, according to EPA, between 20,000 and 60,000 Americans die every year as the result of ozone and particulates from coal-burning power plants. That’s 30 times the number of people who were killed in the World Trade Center attacks. But year after year after year, a million asthma attacks, a million lost work days every year. That’s one of the costs of coal that they don’t tell you about when they say that coal only costs 11 cents a kilowatt hour.
AMY GOODMAN: Robert Kennedy and Bill Haney. Bill Haney’s film is called The Last Mountain, focusing on Robert Kennedy and environmental activists in West Virginia about mountaintop removal. For the full conversation, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. We were speaking at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The film will open around the country in June.