Friday, January 14, 2011

Judy Bond, Huffington Post Blog by David Novack

Please read filmmaker's Huffington Post memorial blog on Judy Bonds.

Monday, March 08, 2010


A message from Maria Gunnoe:

Twilight, Boone County, WV

It's a wonderful place to be for now...
Thanks to multiple mountaintop removal permits, Twilight is the next community on Route 26 to be threatened by extinction!

In this bold plan, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition is raising funds to purchase property and stop the depopulation of a precious rural culture and its people.

Please visit the
MTR Stops Here!
website for more info and to donate.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

BTF - Wins IDA Pare Lorentz Award

We are so pleased to announce that BTF has won the Int'l Doc Ass'n Pare Lorentz award for socially-relevant filmmaking. Not only does this bode well for exposure of the film in the long run, but more importantly, it means the message is being heard! I owe infinite gratitude to everyone in the film who let me into their lives and entrusted me with their story.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

DVD's Ship This Week!

I am pleased to announce that the new DVD's ship this week!  The Burning the Future DVD contains a DVD-ROM section called the "Coal Impact Guide."  Pop the DVD into your computer and you will have access to tons of information to dig deeper after viewing the film.  Learn the impact that coal has on YOUR life, and decide what your impact will be.  Complete with House Party Toolkit and Instructions, share the DVD with friends and encourage them to do the same.

Together, We Can Do This.

And thank you to the hundreds of folks who have ordered the DVD in advance.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Rivetting Essay on the MTR War in WV

Bob Kincaid, host of Head-on-Radio Network ( has offered this poignant essay. It cuts to the heart of the conflict in the coalfields, between miners and those working to protect the mountains and the communities around them - a conflict propogated by coal companies and shrouded in fear. Bob graciously permitted me to post it here.

I live in Fayette County, West Virginia, the heart and soul of West Virginia’s whitewater rafting tourism industry. Thousands and thousands of people come here every year to raft the New and Gauley Rivers. They roar down gorges as old as the earth itself, past the ghost towns that are all that’s left of the mine wars of a century ago; towns where Mary Harris “Mother” Jones worked to organize the slaves of the coal industry: Thurmond and Glen Jean and Brooklyn and Cunard and Hawks Nest and Prince and McKendree; places that are little more than wide mossy spots by the riverside, with a few squared stones marking where entire generations played out. These are the Dodge Citys and Tombstones of Appalachia.

If asked, most folks would tell you that the days of the mine wars are a long gone piece of West Virginia’s violent past. Most folks would be wrong. I saw on Saturday, April 5 that the past is never so far away that we can’t see it come to life before our eyes. There’s a war going on in West Virginia again, only the combatants have changed a bit.

A hundred years ago, when my Great-grandfather was mining coal in these hills, he and his folks understood that human dignity required a community to stand together against the coal bosses who treated them like slaves. They knew they were slaves and resented it. A lot of blood got spilled, but in the end, the coal miners of the early twentieth century won the right to form a union, be paid a living wage (in actual U.S. cash, no less), have health care and a pension for their old age; but you probably know all that.

Anyway, about fifty folks from my hometown went up on Gauley Mountain Saturday for an event termed a “Blessing of the Mountain.” See, the mountain in question is presently in the early stages of its execution. A coal company has gotten a permit to utterly destroy the mountain right up to the boundary of the New River Gorge National River, all in the name of seams of coal that are sometimes as thin as six inches. The company controls 18,000 acres or more that almost completely encircle my town. The mountain’s drainages are the Gauley and New Rivers themselves. The coal company has begun the process of blasting the mountain to death from the top down. Here at my home about four miles from the site, we already hear the distant rumbles, like bombs going off, as the blasting of Gauley Mountain proceeds.

Like I said, that mountain’s been mined before. Like all played-out coal mines, it’s full of water. Heaven help the mariner when some blast breaks the mountain open and sends those millions (if not billions) of gallons hurtling down onto our HeadStart Center right before it washes the rest of our town and its people down the creek and into the New River. By the way: the coal company owns the HeadStart Center’s property, so HeadStart won’t even complain about little poor kids being the first to go. See how it works?

We drove up the winding mountain road, intending to go up to the scene of the crime. Where the road turns to rock and dirt, we found it had been barred by the Company, and a hastily spray-painted “No Trespassing” sign erected on steel cable crossing the road. The Episcopal priests who were leading the worship service weren’t fazed. They began setting up to hold the service where we were. Prayers for Justice, after all, being prayers, can reach the ears of the Almighty whether those doing the praying are standing over the victim’s bleeding heart or standing at her feet. So the fifty or so of us prepared for the little service that was planned. Folks passed around flyers with the Order of Worship. Photocopied song lyrics were passed around in lieu of hymnals. My three children and I stood together among the assembled congregants.

That’s when everything changed. Charging around the further curve came a couple of four-wheelers, roaring up the road past our group. Immediately following them were all manner of vehicles (mostly pick-up trucks). Out of the vehicles poured what looked like the majority of the coal company’s demolition crew, along with their wives and even some of their children. They were all clad in identical sky-blue t-shirts with a logo on the back and the slogan “Protect An Endangered Species- Save a Coal Miner” or some such corporate drivel. They deliberately blocked our little group in between the mouth of the road and the No Trespassing barrier, like some group of penned animals they planned to slaughter just like the animals that die when they push the filth from their “mining” into the valley below.

Since we’re fairly new to having our homes attacked by Mountain Top Removal here in my neck of Fayette County, some of us were surprised at the show of force. I checked with my friends down in the Southern WV Coal Fields, however, and they said it’s a typical company tactic. Here’s what happens: the coal company tells its people that the Evil Environmentalists (who, they’re told, love trees, fish and numerous species of snails more than people) are trying to take away their jobs. The bosses tell their people that America can’t have electricity without blowing the hell out of the oldest mountains on the planet. The company people are told that they’re actually even “patriots.” They get some spiffy new t-shirts and are told, not asked, to take the wife and kids to help intimidate the “Environmental Wackos.” Failure to do so can mean one of these peoples’ jobs.

Of course, the bosses DON’T tell their people that as quick as the last seam has been scraped from the earth, as soon as they’ve pushed the last bit of mountaintop over into the valley that is my home and killed every living thing that walks, creeps, swims, hops or crawls, the Company will be gone like all companies do when the seams play out. They don’t tell their “associates” that two or three spins of the Wall Street roulette wheel will reduce those much-vaunted “profit sharing plans” to the value of your Great-granny’s cache of Civil War Bank of Richmond Confederate notes. Nope. All those pathetic company people hear is that “Coal Keeps The Lights On.” All they know is that as long as they keep up the bombing, the paychecks keep coming.

As the mountaintop removers swarmed up the little dirt road in their bid to intimidate a couple of priests and a bunch of mostly fifty- and sixty-something activists, I looked at my own kids (14, 12 and 11). I told them “Kids, these people are more to be pitied than despised. They’re slaves. They don’t even have the freedom to wear their own clothes. See? On the job and off, they have to wear what the Company tells them. They go where the Company tells them to go. They say what the Company tells them to say. They’re not even allowed to think for themselves.” Amid shouts of “Turn your lights off, then!” and “Coal keeps your lights on!” from the company people, my kids looked at me and nodded in understanding. One of them said, “Go talk to them, Daddy.”

It was what I call an “Atticus Finch” moment: a moment when a parent can’t do anything but be straight with his kids, knowing that everything he’s tried to teach them before hangs in the balance. “I can’t talk to them, baby. They’re past learning. They’re past comprehending the harm they’re doing. They’re hurting themselves and their own children with what they do, and they don’t even care. They’re slaves. Slaves live in fear of the Master. Nothing I can say can take away the fear their Master has put into them. They think the only thing in the world they’re capable of is dynamiting our mountains so they can have a payday.”

I didn’t have to say any more. My spoken lesson was interrupted by a much more visceral one. The service started, with Father Roy leading the call and response. My kids learned the truth as the company people snickered and guffawed as the priest said “We invite the mountains to worship with us” and the people responded “Deep forests, babbling brooks and clear mountain streams.”

The cat-calls and jeering rose to outright mockery when, responding to the priest’s confession that “We remember and confess that we have become alienated from the earth. . . ” the people replied with “We have polluted rivers with waste from mountain mines . . . We are sorry.” Forced laughter rose from the people who were paid and threatened to compel their attendance. More cries of “Coal keeps the lights on” and “Turn off your lights.” As it turned out, the company people knew their catechism far better than we did ours.

Undaunted, the priests continued on. There was some singing. Then Father Stan moved into his homily. He began preaching facts about mountaintop removal. Some of the company wives ratcheted the tension up, beginning to scream at the priest. They hollered “stop lying” as he described the toxic effects of mountaintop removal.

When Father Stan got into the meat of his homily, a short, squat company man came storming down from the Company’s hastily-erected, makeshift gate, yelling at the priest all the way. “I worship the same god you do,” he cried, as though addressing some be-robed shaman from an alien, distant land, “but I ain’t gonna let you tell these lies! Who’s gonna feed my family? Who’s gonna send my kids to college,” never managing to identify just what “lies” had slain him in the Spirit. Suffice to say, at no time had any of us suggested his children starve for want of either food or education. That bit of mendacity had come, of course, straight from corporate HQ.

People around the man gently explained to him, “Sir, this is a worship service.” It didn’t matter. The company people had managed to put an end to it. They began hollering their same, tired, chants of “Coal Keeps the Lights On” like some holy, soul-saving mantra, and waving their “Friends of Coal” placards like pieces of the True Cross. A company wife standing in the bed of a pick-up truck began squealing again about putting her children through college and what she apparently thought was her husband’s constitutional right to destroy anything upon which he set his eye, as long as they made a nice living at it; as long as it came with a new truck every couple of years, some clothes and a big screen TV from some slave-labor sweatshop in China.

At the height of the tension, a clear, pure voice rang out among us. One of our folks sent “Amazing Grace” onto the air. It was quickly picked up by the rest of us, silencing the coal people.

Once it was clear that the service would go no further, that Almighty God would no longer be implored to save our community from mountaintop removal, the company people seemed content.

It looks like the mine wars are on again here in West Virginia. Those of us who are struggling to save our communities are committed to principles of non-violence, emulating Dr. King, the fortieth anniversary of whose murder had passed only the day before this confrontation. The company people, however, have shown their hand. Kept in the depths of pitiful ignorance darker than any of the underground mines in which my Great-granddaddy, Granddaddy and Daddy labored, they will bluster, scream, shout, intimidate, threaten and perhaps engage in actual violence to protect not themselves, but their Masters. That’s the saddest part of this whole tableau: these people are so far gone down Big Coal’s toxic garden path that they don’t realize we’re struggling for their children’s future every bit as much as we are for our own.

As I looked at the company wives in attendance, smirking, cat-calling, hooting and hollering, I couldn’t help recalling a statistic that stays on my mind: because of all the mercury coal has put into our lives, every company wife there, like my own wife, and my own daughters, had within her body enough mercury to ensure that every child she bears will suffer at least a ten point IQ deficit. Her very breast milk contains enough mercury to qualify as toxic waste under the EPA’s own standards. Her husband’s proximity to the blasting, not to mention the poisons he’s forced to work with, in and around, promises a tormented old age, if the couple have mind enough left to comprehend it. Yet, that gray April Saturday in the oldest mountains on earth, she saw me as the enemy.

After they left Pharaoh’s bondage and ran into some tough sledding in the desert, it’s said that a great number of the Children of Israel preferred a return to Pharaoh and his three-hots-and-a-cot. The preacher in Ecclesiastes said “There is nothing new under the sun.” I reckon he was right.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Sundance Channel - Television Premiere!

On Tuesday, May 13th at 9:35, Burning the Future: Coal in America will have its National Television Premiere on The Sundance Channel. Please check local cable/satellite service to make sure Sundance Channel is included in your tier of service.

BTF will be played as part of their "The Green" series of eco-focused films, shorts and other media. It will play three times that week, and again during re-run seasons of "The Green."

Please watch the film and post a review on Sundance Channel's website - linked above and:

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Thoughts on the W.V. Premiere

I brought my kids. They sat, side by side, with kids their age. Kids who have been fighting for clean water and against mountaintop removal. My daughter sat with Donetta Blankenship's daughter - who in the film cries as her mother leaves her overnight for the first time ever, on her way to the United Nations to take a stand. That morning 3 years ago when I filmed at Donetta's home, the her kids were frightened and ill. Now, her daughter sits with mine. They'd both straightened their hair, put on a little too much make up as teenagers do, and sat down to watch the film. They could have been two friends going to the mall together. It's a constant reminder that kids are kids, and people are people, and what divides us is so petty when compared to what brings us together.

The screening went very well. We schlepped hi-def gear from NY to give the brightest, clearest picture possible. Boy....independent filmmaking at its best...playing projectionist as well. It was SO worth it.

The Q &A was spectacular. But what touched me the most was the response when I reiterated that there are groups all over the country who are fighting coal-fired power plants. It made the folks in WV understand that their battle is part of a larger war, and that they aren't alone. Spontaneous applauds and tears made it all hit home.

I'm a lucky and changed man to have spent all these years outside of my Brooklyn box and out in the world with my friends in West Virginia.

Next day, I took the kids into the woods for a hike. We came across an old mine from the 20's and picked lumps of coal off the trail. The spring air was rejuvenating with wildflowers and trees in bloom. It was a piece of the real West Virgina, the one that has to be preserved.

I didn't let them drink the water.

Monday, April 21, 2008

West Virginia Premiere - EARTH DAY

Coming full circle this week as I bring Burning the Future: Coal in America to West Virginia for its first public screening in the coal fields.

West Virginia International Film Festival
WVSC Capitol Center Theater
123 Summers Street, Charleston
Tuesday, April 22nd at 6:30.

I have been looking forward to this event, and I hope to see folks from "all sides of the many aisles" that make up public opinion and discourse in West Virginia. I will be on hand for Questions & Answers after the screening, and would love to have a great debate. That's what the film is for - to challenge everyone's thinking on the issues.

Hope to see as many West Virginian's as possible there!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

DVD Update - Ready for Purchase SOON

The DVD has been held up a few weeks. Why? Because we are developing an incredibly powerful "Coal Impact Guide" - a sort of "Everything you've ever wanted to know about coal, mountaintop removal, slurry, powerplants, emissions, health effects, and what YOU CAN DO about it." This will be a ROM portion on the DVD, so after you watch the film and the 4 short films that make up the video extras, pop the DVD into your computer and go for a self-guided tour through the Coal Impact Guide.

I look forward to feedback of all sorts, especially on the Coal Impact Guide. There will be an online version of the guide, so it will evolve over time.

The DVD's will be for sale - AT THE LATEST - by May 13th. I am hoping that they will be ready a week earlier.

Monday, April 07, 2008

AFI/Dallas Film Festival

This week, Burning the Future screened at the AFI/Dallas International Film Festival. What a terrific ride. Audiences were packed and the Q&A's were very lively. It was particularly interesting to be in Texas - the state the burns more coal in power plants than any other in America, AND generates more wind power than any state in America! What a great dichotomy in a great state.

I hope this leads to AFI/Los Angeles in the Fall. Keep posted for more screening information.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

DVD goes on sale in a month!!!

Late in March, there will be different versions of the dvd be available for purchase on the website,

The institutional version will contain robust teaching guides and a license to display the film within the institution. This version will be distributed by The Video Project, a premier educational media distribution company.

A consumer version will be available as well directly from the website. It will be a very rich resource, with a DVD-ROM section filled called the "Coal Impact Guide." This will contain important materials to round out the viewers' education and help them to dig even deeper.

Stay tuned.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

NYC and LA Premieres!!!!

On February 29th, Burning the Future: Coal in America will premiere at the Landmark Sunshine Theater in NYC for a one-week run! We will have Q & A sessions after the early evening showings on Friday and Saturday, and after matinees on Sunday. During the following week, we will provide Q&A sessions after any screening which a local high school or middle school attends.

I am very excited about this new and rapid development. Please look for reviews in the papers and spread the word!

Tickets will be available on the Landmark Theater website, or...

On March 7th, BTF will have its West Coast premiere, also for a one-week run! Exact theater and times to be determined. I will update as soon as possible.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My dreams for the DVD and Website

We're working on the DVD - and it's exciting. My greatest wish from the beginning has been that Burning The Future would be a tool for debate. Certainly, we need the energy we use and we are likely going to need more as technology grows. But we are at a critical turning point for the planet, and for the coal mining regions of Appalachia.

The DVD will expand upon the themes of the film - Digging Deeper to learn more about coal, about grassroots activism, about the collateral affects of coal-fired power, about its contribution to climate change, and about what we all can do. And that's the most exciting part...what we all can do. Plus, it will pop into your computer and link directly to a growing website that will allow provide much more information and allow for interactive debate. I will welcome ALL VOICE in this debate, because no single position is without some merit, some need, some POV that is based in the realities of many people.

Much, much more to come. I'll be sharing these developments as they emerge.

Website Goes Live

Today, the Burning The Future website goes live! will be an ever-expanding resource for those interested in learning more about coal, our energy policy, and how we all can help. Please check it and an register for frequent updates about the film, the site and more.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Sundance - does it matter?

We're waiting to hear about Sundance, the world's premiere film festival. One day, I'm sleepless wondering if Burning The Future will be admitted to the festival. The next, I wonder if it really matters.

But the more I ponder the question, the more I come to realize that it's not about me, or my "film" - it's not approval from some distant board of directors that I seek. It's about the issues.

This business of coal in the US, as the answer to our energy security, is so paramount at this critical moment of climate change, that I must value highly any mechanism for catapulting the dialogue to the national level. I think of all the hipsters and college students who follow Sundance and watch documentary film, plus the fans of non-fiction film of all ages...these are the folks who get motivated at the grassroots level to move this country, and I must recognize the important place that the Sundance Festival holds for this crowd.

So we hold our breath, hoping that the distant board sees the value of the debate and chooses to play a vital role.

This blog will be the first public announcement I make about yeah or nay with regard to Sundance. Check back in early December.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What of the Miners - Unsung Heroes

I've blogged about the miners before, and I will again. They are the unsung heroes of the energy behind America. How do we move forward, how do we progress towards a clean energy policy, without leaving them and their families behind?

And it's not only miners, it's all the support companies whose work in the coalfields is directly generated by the coal keeper, lawyers, accountants, mechanics, endlist list.

I have some thoughts about this..... but I want to hear yours. Please, let us solve this together. Let's make sure the solution respects those who have sacrificed the most.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Private Screening in WV, celebrating clean water

October 2007 - The folks in Williamson HAVE CLEAN WATER! This has been a major triumph for them. Tap water has been brought to the communities of Sprigg, Lick Creek, and Rawl. It is a major testament to the endurance and determination of the folks living in those parts, and to the state for finally stepping up, admitting that their wells are toxic, and bringing them city water.

I travelled to Williamson to show the film to a group of folks who are in it. Billy, Carmelita, Ernie and others. To be honest, I was nervous about their response. It's hard to predict what the subjects of a film are going to say, as they see the broader connections that the filmmaker has brought to the narrative. Their response took me by surprise...

From start to end, there were tears. Not because the film is sad, but because the story is so raw, and as Billy said, they saw so much hope in both the success of their community activism, and in the existing of the film itself - drawing national attention to their little corner of Appalachia. It was a humbling honor for me to share that with them, as well as the awesome spaghetti and meatballs!

Saturday, September 01, 2007

So much has happened, so little time

We're in high gear. The White House is trying to change a major rule, the Stream Buffer Zone rule, that will allow for increased mountaintop removal coal mining and remove one of the only grounds on which folks can issue lawsuits against the coal mining companies and the permitting agencies. See for more information. We're in the middle of the 60 day comment period...heading, I hope, not toward disaster but toward a small victory.

In this context, I think of the heroes of the film and what they must face. For every victory, there is another defeat. But now they are mobilizing feverishly.

Maria, Bo, Ben, Donetta, Billy...I'll find out what they have to say and post their comments later this week.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Film Completed!

It has been five years in my head, 2 and a half years since shooting the first tape, and the most incredible experience of my professional life. Three titles later (first American Coal and then Coal-Fired), Burning The Future: Coal in America is complete. I walked out of the final edit and color correct with a finished work in my hands. Now, it is time to birth the baby. The journey is hardly over.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why so much Electricty?

We are THIRSTY for power - electric power. Look around your home. The American way of life is based on consumption and modernization. How many devices in your home CONSTANTLY draw power whether you use them or not? Microwaves, televisions, cable and satellite TV boxes, alarm clocks, computers, printers, AC/DC converters (the kind that charge your iPod or your cell phone)'s a long list. Then there are simple efficiency issues...we can't all afford to run out and buy a new a/c or refrigerator just because a "slightly" more efficient model has come out. American manufacturers have not been held accountable to real efficiency standards.

Coal-fired power is cheap to purchase. It is domestic which is arguably a good thing for national security. And it fuels our unquenchable thirst for electricity.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Wow! In High-Definition

I am sitting in the online of the film. It is the first time I see the footage in high-definition. OMG! The beauty of West Virginia is just astounding. Juxtaposed against the vivid images of dirty water, levelled mountains, and arid land...the overall impact is unearthly. And the people - in high-definition I am thrown back to every wonderful and shocking minute I have spent with Maria, Ben, Billy, Bo and Donetta. Their moods, their expressions, their fervent truths, their love, their humor, their humanity... it is as if I am seeing them anew. Wow!

Monday, June 18, 2007

Music: Raz is a Genius

All the music for Burning The Future has come together. Raz Mesinai, the composer, and I have been working on it for months now. (see earlier blogs on music) What he has done is nothing short of genius. I couldn't be happier. Every mood, every nuance, with barely a smattering of a blue-grass feel. His soundscapes and rhythms keep things pulsing forward, and the tonal palate is like a smorgasboard of flavors that, though often contrasting, work great together. I hope we are able to do an album of the score. Thanks, Raz. (see )

Friday, October 13, 2006

Composer "B" is a godsend - Raz Mesinai

His name is Raz Mesinai. I am thrilled that Raz will be doing the score for the film. He and I share a host of ideas for creating sounds out of ordinary things. As a basis for scenes involving water, we will make tones from large glasses filled with water. To connect to the earth, we will use rhythms and native american sounds. To capture the churning of the industry night and day, we will pulsate. And we will go to acoustic instruments to depict the positive connection between nature and people. It will be ecclectic for sure, but it will also unify the film into a solid work. I am charged up!

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Composer "A" - bad idea

After two weeks of negotiating and finalizing a contract with composer "A", he has informed me that he won't be available for several MONTHS. But I need a rough score in 6 weeks. I wish he had disclosed this earlier in our negotiations, saving both time and legal expense. I'm going to call composer "B" - instinct says it is all for the better.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Finding the Composer

I've spoken to two composers - we'll call them "A" and "B". I liked them both over the phone. There's something about "A" that I think will make communication easier. Also, he has a bit more of a rock and pop feel, which is more what I believe I want for the film. And he can write a real "song" if I need one. Then again, there is something about "B" that is compelling, almost haunting. He is a composer of a different ilk. While he does film scores, he also does professional avant guard composition. But I'm not sure I can communicate as well with him. Or that he can produce a soundtrack that isn't simply avant guard or tonal sounds. Tough choice. I'm going with "A".

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

MTR Aftermath - what is left.

Mining companies are supposed to "reclaim" the land. This means that, according to law, they are to restore it to equal or better use than before.

What is left atop these MTR sites? As one University of Kentucky biologist described to me, it is the most unproductive ecological environment one could imagine. The soil is compacted blasted rock, not real topsoil. So it doesn't retain water very well. As a result, only drought-resistant species can thrive - which means importing plants from elsewhere in the country and the globe. The tall hardwoods and fertile understory that were once home to the American chestnut, dozens of invertebrates, mosses, mushrooms, ginger, dozens of medicinal plants and is all gone and can not return in any conceivable amount of time. Dr. Ben Stout from Wheeling Jesuit University states, "a forest will grow here in a millennium, but it will never be like the ancestral hardwood forest that once stood here."

Some sites are "improved" with an airport strip (how many residents in the coalfields would you guess can afford a private plane?), a prison, a school that had to be closed because of a shifting foundation, a golf course (which can only serve coal company executives), and a Wal-Mart. Improvement is definitely a subjective notion.

Monday, June 19, 2006

What is Mountaintop Removal? (MTR)

Coal exists in the mountains of Appalachia like layers in a cake, with solid rock between the layers. A traditional mine is made of tunnels in the earth created by taking out the coal. But in order to prevent a collapse of the mountain, sections of coal are left untouched and in the upper reaches of the mountains, the higher layers are often not mined at all.

The coal industry figured out that if they could just REMOVE the mountain from the top, exposing the coal, they could extract it all - cheaply, and with better safety standards for miners. So.....

Step 1 - Clear cut the trees. Here, natures bounty of high and low-growth vegetation, with the rich diversity of the temperate forest and understory, is simply removed. It is supposed to be "harvest" but is almost always simply cut, piled, and pushed off the steep slopes into the valleys below.

Step 2 - Blasting. Millions of tons of explosives are set deep within the layer of rock that sits above the coal seam. This rock is BLASTED. (see the trailer for a visual).

Step 3 - Valley Fill - The loose rock is disposed of, pushed off the steep slopes into the valleys below and compacted into what is called a "valley fill" - a terraced wall of compacted earth with little structural integrity. Often a "drag line" is employed to move large sections of earth with its huge shove, the size of a large home.

Step 4 - Coal harvest - the exposed coal seam is scooped up with bulldozers and carted off for chemical processing at a nearby plant.

Step 5 - Blasting. The next layer of rock now needs to be removed and the process begins again.

Thus, minimal labor results in maximum coal extraction. Unfortunately, it is also maximum damage to the environment. Today, about 40% of the coal extracted in West Virginia is mined in this manner...and growing.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Birth of an Idea for a Film

A friend of mine had brought me to Kentucky to show me what he called "an atrocity of industry." It's amazing, and quite disturbing. Imagine flying in a helicopter through the verdant valleys of the tightly-rippled Appalachian mountains. The variety of hardwood trees and rich undergrowth is unparalleled anywhere outside of the tropical rainforest. With the window open, the smells of earth permeate the air and you can understand why the "hillbillies" of yore, who were planning to travel beyond the mountains, chose to stay.

The copter flies up through the valley and, as the valley becomes thinner, has to climb. But as the propellered bird swoops above the highest trees, what unfolds before your eyes is a vast lunar landscape as far as the eyes can see. This is a mountaintop-removal coal mining site, where 600 acres of pristine forest have been not only denuded, but leveled. It is going on throughout the coal mining regions of Appalachia, to the tune of at least 600 THOUSAND ACRES so far, and accelerating. These sites can be seen from outer space. Go to GoogleEarth, look at southern West Virginia and South East Kentucky and you will easily find them - and who knows how old those images are.

More later on what mountain-top removal is, why we need so much coal, and the host of environmental and human impacts of this and all forms of coal mining and combustion.

Monday, May 15, 2006

What to do about coal

This is the first entry tracking the making of the documentary film, American Coal. I, the filmaker, will record my evolving impressions here, with an opportunity for readers to post responses. As the film nears completion, I hope you all will be a part of carving the point of view of the film. I can't do this alone.

Monday, May 01, 2006

52% of our electricity???!!! From Coal????

As my Russian friend always says... "can you believe it?" In this day and age, over HALF of all electricity consumed in the United States comes from Coal-fired power plants. It's like a dirty secret. Coal is not of the Victorian era. It is not a relic from the industrial revolution. Coal is here, and it is now, and it is as part of American society today as it has ever been. The difference today is that we have moved the "dirty" aspects of coal to where they are either far away or invisible:
  1. Extraction - the mountains of Appalachia are simply being obliterated.
  2. Heavy Metals - the dangerous metals that exist both in the coal and in the surrounding rock that has been blasted works its way into ground water, poisoning streams, rivers, and folks who have no choice but to drink contaminated well water.
  3. Sulfur/Nitrogen - at the power plant, sulfur and nitrogen are released into the upper atmosphere where they combine with other gases and moisture to produce acid rain. Coal-fired power plants in the Midwest are the source of all the acid rain that plagues the northeastern US.
  4. Mercury - at the power plant, mercury is released into the atmosphere and ends up in lakes and fish. Most states have banned the eating of lake fish due to mercury content. Bigger fish eat these fish and the mercury works its way up the food chain and out to the oceans. We are now warned that pregnant women should not eat large game fish, which all have high levels of mercury...all from coal-fired power plants.
  5. Fine Particulate Matter - there is soot in the atmosphere from these power plants. It is too small to see, but we know that 50,000 people a year die from respiratory and heart conditions caused by fine particulate matter. Though coal-fired plants are not the only source for this, they are a very significant one.
  6. Anyone want to add?