“The Last Mountain,” which opens Friday, was sparked by three things, the filmmaker explains over lunch at a restaurant on M Street NW. The first two are the community activists “around Coal River Mountain who stood up against the most powerful interest in their state’” and “the obliteration of the landscape and the environment in Appalachia.”
The other inspiration is about to join Haney at the table: lawyer, activist and entrepreneur Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose 2004 book, “Crimes Against Nature,” awakened the director’s interest in mountaintop mining.
Kennedy, who didn’t help make the film but is a major figure in it, addresses mountaintop mining as if he’s giving a stump speech. “It’s the worst man-made environmental disaster on the North American continent,” he says in a voice made quavery by spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological condition of the larynx.
“It’s also a template for every environmental issue,” he continues, “because it has all the ingredients, including the subversion of democracy and the colonial effect of corporate power on localities. Large corporations come and subdue the people and extract the wealth. And leave impoverished, devastated culture and society behind.”
Recalling his father’s 1960s interest in Appalachia, Kennedy says: “Coal doesn’t bring prosperity. It brings poverty and destruction.” The coal companies, he says, “have meticulously and ruthlessly and mercilessly replaced human labor with bombs and machines.”
He eats a club sandwich with two extra orders of mayonnaise, which he spreads as liberally as he does statistics: Massey Energy, the movie’s corporate villain, committed 67,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in five years, he says. And coal companies detonate 25,000 tons of explosives daily in West Virginia, “the equivalent of a Hiroshima bomb once a week.”
Like Kennedy’s comments, “The Last Mountain” is unabashedly polemical. The film provides evidence of catastrophic health problems, resulting from high levels of lead, mercury and other metals in drinking water, and flood hazards, from earth dams that hold (or fail to hold) water contaminated by toxic sludge.
The movie’s credibility is boosted by the weakness of its opposition: Massey Energy has been on the retreat since the April 2010 disaster at its Upper Big Branch mine, where 29 miners were killed as the result of a methane-gas explosion.
“One of the horrors of making this movie,” Haney says, “was that when we plumbed Massey’s safety standards, you could feel it was going to happen again. And then it did.”