Documentaries We Like: Coal Country

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While the global spotlight is on the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen this December, a new film makes a case for the importance of examining our energy sources here in the States. Coal Country, a documentary by Mari-Lynn Evans and Phylis Geller premiering on Planet Green November 14, takes a look at coal-mining towns in Appalachia, which is home to some of the poorest communities in the U.S.

Coal companies practice mountaintop-removal mining (MTR) in these areas, and while the industry is a major source of jobs, it is also, the film argues, a major cause of environmental and economic problems. And it doesn't look like coal consumption will decrease anytime soon: The U.S. Energy Information Administration predicts that coal electricity will account for 39 percent of growth in national electricity generation from 2006 to 2030. Coal Country's executive producer, Mari-Lynn Evans, tells us what that means for the people of Appalachia.

–Aileen Torres

The coal industry is the primary source of jobs in mining towns. What are the present alternatives?
It is a tragedy that in the coal fields of West Virginia people live in a monoeconomy that has been controlled by 'King Coal' for generations. There is such economic desperation in that region–one of the poorest in the country, but the richest in coal–that people have little choice between working for coal, working a minimum-wage job, or leaving the state. That is our heritage. When there is a downturn in the local market, people from the coal fields leave for places like Cleveland or Detroit. However, there are no jobs in the rubber factories anymore, making the few jobs that coal provides even more desperately held by the people.

What other industries can lead to economic evolution in these communities, and how can you get those industries interested in these places?
Many communities have developed green industry. In West Virginia alone, tourism is responsible for more revenue than coal. Towns like Shepherdstown and Lewisburg have little or no coal, and they are flourishing through arts and culture. Other places in West Virginia attract tourism through rafting, skiing, and hiking. The concern has been that there is not this type of diversity in the coal fields. Some would argue that's because that is the way coal companies want it, and they have contributed to this current state.

It is very difficult to attract any industry that is not extractive [of the land]. It is to the benefit of industries like coal to do business in areas where there are no people. Unfortunately, what has happened over the years is that these little communities, these hollers in Appalachia, are disappearing, along with their way of life, as coal is permitted to continue mountaintop removal mining. Many communities have had problems with their water that they attribute to MTR, [such as] massive slurry dams breaking or leaking into water supplies. Many studies have shown that people living in coal communities have a higher rate of mortality. MTR also decreases the value of homes. Not many people want to live near an MTR site of a coal-fired power plant.

What can individuals do about this?
It is important for everyone to see for themselves what the true cost of coal is for people living in Appalachia–to know that when you flip on a light switch, entire mountains are being leveled in the coal fields for that energy. There is a civil war happening in the coal fields, and it is necessary to talk about it, to let people's stories be heard, and that is what we have tried to do with the film. The Sierra Club is one of our major outreach partners. They are showing Coal Country in thousands of house parties. They are also working to facilitate discussion of the legislation that is pending on MTR.

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