Sunday, July 3, 2011

““The Last Mountain” shows a passionate tale of local grassroots activism on Dirty Coal

Last weekend the eco-documentary “The Last Mountain” made its debut in Chicago for a week long run at the Landmark Century Cinema in Lakeview. I was able to reserve a free ticket offered by the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) to view this exciting documentary. The Last Mountain is so full of useful, shocking and thought-provoking information I almost don’t know where to begin. First off I will say that if you never thought of the consequences of flipping on your light switch, you will after you see this film.

From The Last Mountain website here is short cut a summary of the film:

“In the valleys of Appalachia, a battle is being fought over a mountain. It is a battle with severe consequences that affect every American, regardless of their social status, economic background or where they live. It is a battle that has taken many lives and continues to do so the longer it is waged. It is a battle over protecting our health and environment from the destructive power of Big Coal….A passionate and personal tale that honors the extraordinary power of ordinary Americans when they fight for what they believe in, THE LAST MOUNTAIN shines a light on America’s energy needs and how those needs are being supplied. It is a fight for our future that affects us all.” - See the full synopsis here.


Some might be thinking that, if this is happening all the way in West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains, how does that affect us here in Chicago? Well, it affects us plenty. Why? Because we also have coal mines here in the Southern part of our state. Since Illinois is flat with no mountains, so we have mostly underground mines but, in the Appalachia, the mountain top coal mining creates a bit of different problem. Here are some basic facts from the film that were quite eye opening:

• Almost half of the electricity produced in the U.S. comes from the burning of coal.
Sixteen pounds of coal is burned each day for every man woman and child in the US.
Thirty-percent of that coal comes from the mountains of Appalachia.
• Burning coal is the number one source of greenhouse gases worldwide.

Mountain top coaling mining is basically removing of the top of a mountain to get at the coal – it is not right there on the surface even though it is considered a form of surface mining. Mountain top mining has serious environmental, health and job impacts:

• Mountain top removal has destroyed 500 Appalachian Mountains, decimated 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2000 miles of streams.
• There are 312 coal sludge impoundments in Appalachia.
Massey Energy 28 impoundments have spilled 24 times in the last decade, contaminating rivers with more than 300 million gallons of sludge; two times the amount released in BP’s Gulf oil disaster.
• In the last 30 years the coal industry in West Virginia has increased production by 140% while eliminating more than 40,000 jobs.
• The health and environmental costs associated with mining, transporting and burning coal, as reported by a new Harvard Medical School study, are estimated to be $345 billion annually – or more than 17¢ per kilowatt hour. These costs are often referred to as “externalities” since they are costs borne by the public which are not reflected in the price of coal-fired electricity.
• There are 600 coal-fired power plants across the United States, and over 600 ash ponds across the country, filled with 150 billion gallons of toxic sludge.
• Each year emissions from coal-fired power plants contribute to more than 10 million asthma attacks, brain damage in up to 600,000 newborn children, and 43,000 premature deaths.
• The EPA has announced that in 48 states, it’s unsafe to eat many freshwater fish due to mercury contamination.

In between the mountains valleys called “hollows”, there are towns in these hollows – yes, people live there. When the mountain tops are destroyed from mining, the company tries to “reconstruct” them with rocks – not the soil that was once there. Before the mining anytime it rained, the soil would absorb the rain unlike the new reconstruct of rock which absorbs nothing. So the water washes down (along with all the toxins released by mining– mercury, arsenic, lead) and the hollow floods. These toxins end up in well water, streams and rivers, and poison the people who drink it and the animals who live in it. Silicon dust, from mining blasts, can cause a condition called silicosis which can be fatal.

Mr. Troubled Mountain and Mr. Evil Bomb are original designs by KimKat


We here in Chicago should be concerned about this because even though the one of most abundant source of coal (oldest and highest in carbon content too) comes from the Appalachian Mountains, the “Illinois Basin” is also a high player in the coal industry. We are also 5th in the nation in coal power generation, with 83 operating coal-fired units at 33 locations (see here for map).

According to this article on, Illinois accounts for 21 percent, or 104 billion tons, of the U.S. coal reserve base. That’s enough to power the country for 52 years, second to Montana. And, according to this data sheet by the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, here some fact about what happens to that Illinois coal:

• 49 percent of the electricity used in Illinois and 49.7 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. is generated from coal. 
• More than 90 percent of Illinois coal produced was purchased by the electric utility industry in 2007.
• More than 80 percent of Illinois coal is sold to out-of-state utilities.
• Illinois utilities and industrial facilities used 5.6 million tons of Illinois coal in 2007.

So, 30% from the Appalachians and 21% from Illinois, that’s a little over half the coal for the entire country- so, the coal problem is closer to home than most people think.


The grassroots activism group “Climate Ground Zero” is also featured in the film. The activists come to the Coal River Valley specifically to protest mountain top coal mining. They risk getting arrested (and many have!) and they camp up in tree tents for “tree-ins” a few yards away from explosives to stop the mining. Several other environmental action groups are also featured in the film: Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC), Mountain Justice, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and Coal River Wind.

Coal River Wind is an organization that has started up a large 328-megwatt wind farm on the high ridges of the mountain. Besides the positive environmental and health perks that come with using renewable and clean energies, the goal is to find green replacements for the coal jobs. The wind farm will generate more long-term jobs and money than coal mining even would and will power 70,000 homes. The wind capacity on the mountain is a "class 5" - which is towards the high level of  the "wind class" scale. This scale goes from 1 (lowest) to 7 (highest). Lorelei Scarbro, who works with Coal River Wind, says, ““This county stands to gain $1.742 million dollars from this mountain annually [from a wind farm], as opposed to the $36,000 the county would earn [annually] from the mountaintop removal operation.” See the facts below:

• The wind industry in the U.S. already operates more than 35,000 turbines, and employs 85,000 people– as many as work in the coal industry.
• 7.9¢ typical cost of electricity from wind per kilowatt hour.
• 6.1¢ typical cost of electricity from coal per kilowatt hour.
• Per the Harvard Medical School report noted above, the cost of coal electricity goes up by approximately 17¢ per kilowatt hour, totaling 23.1¢ – or nearly three times that of wind – if you include the following costs borne by the public: Air Pollution Illnesses, Mercury Poisoning, Health Damages from Carcinogens, Public Health Cost to Appalachia, Climate Change Impact.
• The wind Industry operates more than 35,000 turbines and employs 85,000 people in the U.S. – the same number the coal industry employs. In 2009, enough turbines were built to power 2.4 million homes.
• In 1991, the Department of Energy published a “National Wind Resource Inventory” which pointed out that three states – Kansas, North Dakota, and Texas – have enough harnessable wind energy to supply the nation’s electricity needs. However, since the report was based on 1991 wind technologies and turbines are so much more efficient today, we now know that the DOE’s projection was a gross underestimate.
• According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Renewable Portfolio Standard of 20% by 2020 would create: 185,000 new jobs from development, $25.6B in income to farmers, ranchers, and rural landowners and $10.5B in electricity and natural gas savings to consumers by 2020.

All facts above provided by The Last Mountain Website.

Learn more about how you can TAKE ACTION here:

Watch the Official Trailer:

Quote from the film:
“Everyone is connected to coal whether they realize it or not.” – Marie Gunnae, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC)

Mr.Troubled Mountain is an original design by KimKat.

1 comment:

  1. coal statistics would suggest the commodity isn't going anywhere. Coal reports show if we have to live with it, we may as well reduce the impact of coal and CCS seems to be the best solution found to date. Cherry www.coalportal.comWhile for some an ideal world would see no reliance on coal industry to produce electricity,