The stretch of bone-dry, cracked land doesn’t look like much. But until recently, it was a spring, according to rancher L.J. Turner of Wright, Wyo. “It used to be, there was fish in there,” he says. Now it’s one of 20 nearby springs that have dried up. Standing in front of his truck, Turner mournfully adds, “Coal is a wonderful thing, but it comes at a pretty expensive cost.”

That scene — and the general message — are from a new documentary, “From the Ashes,” the first film produced by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg and his philanthropy division. It airs on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, June 25.

The in-depth look at America’s coal industry hops around the country, offering glimpses of the damage being done as coal is mined, burned and transported. Not only is coal the biggest contributor to climate change, wreaking havoc around the globe, it also makes its presence known in more-targeted ways.


A U.S. coal plant emits gases in Montana. The film discusses what is called “the war on coal” but notes that the fuel’s actual enemy is cheap natural gas. (Courtesy of RadicalMedia)

Around Wright, for instance, the coal sits in an aquifer. So pulling out the coal also means the water is gone from the springs that were fed by the aquifer. In Dallas, air heavily polluted by coal plants contributes to high rates of asthma among children. In North Carolina, coal-ash waste that was dumped into pits contaminated wells, making that water unsafe to drink.

These stories are told against a political backdrop, with President Trump lifting environmental regulations and opposing the Paris climate agreement. There are voices from both sides of what is called “the war on coal,” with some arguing that the industry’s jobs are needed and the environmental risks overblown. And there are appearances by former miners who show how devastating layoffs and closures are for them and their families.

But the coal industry’s actual opponent, several experts explain, is cheap natural gas. And one section of the film shoots down the idea of “clean coal,” which has been touted as a solution by several past presidents, including Barack Obama.

So if there’s no coal comeback on the horizon, what does the future hold? Possibly a lot more wind and solar power. The film takes viewers to another town — Georgetown, Tex. — not because it has sick kids or scarred scenery but because it’s one of the first cities in the country to run on renewable energy.


North Carolina resident, Deborah Graham, holds up a notice about contaminated drinking water. (Courtesy of RadicalMedia)

A mother cares for her child in a behind the scenes photograph from the documentary, “From the Ashes.” (National Geographic)

Vicky Hallett