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Related story: Audience digs 'The Last Mountain'
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "The Last Mountain" is far from the first movie about mountaintop removal and the other controversies that swirl around the Appalachian coal industry. It probably won't be the last.
Among the long list of other documentaries, though -- most notably Mari-Lynn Evan's "Coal Country" -- the new film featuring Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is important for West Virginians to see.
Why? If for no other reason, lots of other people around the country are going to see it. And as coalfield communities struggle with the debate over mountaintop removal, the pressure of doing something about global warming, and the inevitable decline in the region's coal production, we ought to understand how outsiders view what's happening here.
It's true that much of the film is probably exactly what you'd expect: Coalfield residents living with the impacts of mountaintop removal are depicted as fighting the good fight against a rich and powerful industry that is used to getting what it wants. That's pretty much the way every out-of-state journalist who has come here over the past 15 years has described the situation.
It's easy to forget, though, what compelling stories there are in the lives of people like Bo Webb, a native West Virginian and former U.S. Marine who just wanted to come home and live a quiet life at his homeplace. Also, it's easy to miss the fact that mountaintop removal isn't just about damage being done to the rich and diverse natural environment of this region, but also about the growing concern from scientists that people who live near these mines are suffering from greater risks of health problems and to complete elimination of communities they call home.
This film drives those stories home, especially with a touching interview of Jennifer Hall-Massey, who has watched neighbors in her community of Prenter die in a mysterious cluster of cancers residents believe are linked to coal-slurry pollution.
Along the way, it provides what -- without a doubt -- is the absolute best aerial footage I've seen of mountaintop removal and close-up filming of how a dragline does its job. There are lots of powerful scenes of mountaintops being blasted away, as well.
Aside from having a Kennedy as its star, "The Last Mountain" has important names behind it. One of its producers, for example, was Clara Bingham, whose family took on the coal industry's safety and environmental practices at the Courier-Journal of Louisville.