A Look into Coal Country

When the Senate picks up debate on the climate change bill, it will be - in part - deciding the future of coal as an energy source in the U.S. About half the nation's electricity currently comes from coal. And a lot of it comes from the Appalachian region. A new documentary film sets out to show how mining for coal affects the people who live in Coal Country. Julie Grant spoke with the film's producers.

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OPEN: When the Senate picks up debate on the climate change bill, it will be - in part - deciding the future of coal as an energy source in the U.S. About half the nation's electricity currently comes from coal. And a lot of it comes from the Appalachian region. A new documentary film sets out to show how mining for coal affects the people who live in Coal Country. Julie Grant spoke with the film's producers.

Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller set out to make the movie Coal Country because they wanted to show how different people are affected by coal mining.

They found lots of activists, and regular citizens, who would talk with them. Plenty of people were willing to show the thick black water in their toilet tanks. They wanted to show the black soot covering their cars. They wanted to talk about the health problems they live with. And they all blamed the coal industry.

Evans also wrote to coal supporters ñ to get their side of the story on camera. The answer?

"No. That was their response. I sent out requests to the coal industry, to coal companies and to suppliers of the coal industry."

Evans brother is a coal miner. He supports mountain top removal.

(sound of explosions)

As we see in the movie, that's when coal companies blow off the entire top of a mountain to get to the coal. Many people consider it the most polluting and environmentally devastating type of mining.

But Evans says not even her own brother would do an interview about it.

"And when I said, 'why won't you talk on camera? You feel so passionately that coal is wonderful and mountaintop removal is actually for the environment as well as the economy.' And his response to me always was, 'oh I would never speak on camera without getting permission from the company I work for.'"

The filmmakers heard that a lot. And no coal miners ever did get permission to talk on camera.

In the movie, we do hear from Don Blankenship, head of Massey Energy. He spoke at a public hearing about the need to ease environmental restrictions on coal mining.

"We had nearly 800 employees up 'til Friday. We had to lay 8 off. I think that might be just the tip of the iceberg if we don't our rules changed how we mine in the state."

Anti-coal activists at the public hearing explain how the coal companies use that kind of intimidation to control miners.

"I think people are scared that they will lose their jobs and be flipping burgers. You look out and that's all you see. You see mining and flipping burgers. And, I argue, that the coal companies want it that way. They want that to be the only option. That's the only way they could get support for how they treat their workers and how they treat this land. This would never happen in a place that wasn't poor. Never."

In the movie, some coal miners stand up at the public meeting to defend the companies they work for. One explains the coal industry has provided him a good salary.

Miner One: "For the last 14 years, the coal industry has supported myself and my wife and my 3 children."

Miner Two: "When the last one of you so-called environmentalists leave the state, when the rest of us leave for North Carolina, turn out the lights. Oh, wait a minute, there won't be no lights. No coal, no lights."

(music)

The filmmakers want more Americans to understand that when we flick on a light switch - it is not a meaningless act. It takes electricity. And that takes coal.

And, as anti-coal activist Judy Bonds says in the movie, coal is tearing apart West Virginia.

"It is a civil war; it's families against families. It's brother against brother."

Or - in the case of filmmaker Mari Lynn-Evans - brother against sister.

For The Environment Report, I'm Julie Grant.