Last weekend the eco-documentary “The Last Mountain” made its debut in Chicago for a weeklong 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 of the 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.
Coal Is a Global Issue
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, but since Illinois is flat with no mountains, so we have mostly underground mines. But, in the Appalachia, the process of mountain top coal mining creates a bit of a different problem. Here are some basic facts from the film that were quite eye-opening:
- Almost half of the electricity produced in the US 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 2,000 miles of streams.
- There are 312 coal sludge impoundments in Appalachia.
- Massey Energy’s 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. (See complete list here.)
In between the mountains are valleys called “hollows,” and 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.
It Is Closer Than You Think
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 fifth 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 Bloomberg.com, Illinois accounts for 21 percent, or 104 billion tons, of the US coal reserve base. That’s enough to power the country for 52 years, second to Montana. 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.
Action Starts at ‘Ground Zero’
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.
Learn more about how you can take action here:
Quote from the film:
“Everyone is connected to coal whether they realize it or not.” – Marie Gunnae, Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition (OVEC)
Read an extended version of this article and other green articles here.