In “The Last Mountain,” the new documentary about the coal industry’s devastating economic, social, and environmental impact on Appalachia, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. plays a pivotal role in advocating and agitating for the eradication of mountaintop removal strip mining practices in rural West Virginia. But as far as director Bill Haney is concerned, to file his film under "Kennedy populism" or even "mountaintop removal" is to miss the point. “It’s a metaphor,” says Haney, a pioneering environmental entrepreneur who divides his time between teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and applying his passion for social justice to both fiction screenwriting (“American Violet”) and documentary filmmaking (“The Price of Sugar.”) “For me the film’s about celebrating what ordinary Americans can do when they fight for something they believe in. And the fact that a waitress and a former Marine and a bunch of college kids from around the country try to go after the most powerful corporation in their state without any help from any of their elected officials is pretty damn cool and ultimately deeply inspiring.”
“The Last Mountain,” which debuted at Sundance earlier this year and hits theaters nationwide June 3, is animated by the palpable excitement of watching the organic process by which a group of ordinary citizens -- not of the bearded college student variety normally associated with sit-ins or civil disobedience -- become radicalized. Haney lays out the ways the coal industry’s reckless practices have gutted the area’s natural resources, violated safety standards, cut jobs, and contaminated the water system causing a cancer epidemic among local residents. People got angry and began staging protests, getting arrested, and lobbying the Obama Administration (via Kennedy) for tighter coal regulation.
“My father always said West Virginia was the richest state in the country if you look at its resources and the poorest if you look at its people,” says Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who recently published an eponymous nonfiction book chronicling his experiences fighting the coal industry’s exploitative practices alongside and on behalf of the community activists. “When we traveled into these Appalachian hollows, there was so much respect for the papers that exposed the shady practices of the big coal companies. And they’d have pictures of my father and my uncle in so many kitchens and living rooms of the houses we went in. Those were their lifelines to democracy. Now that paper has been bought out by the national chains and they don’t report on the mining industry. So all the functioning mechanics of democracy are being eroded in that state.”
Kennedy likens the coal industry to a government-sanctioned version of the mob. “Breaking the law is part of their business plan,” says Kennedy, a lifelong environmental activist whose investment in preserving rural Virginia’s natural resources evolved out of time spent in the area as a child when his father was based in Washington DC. “The coal industry can’t produce coal cheaper than their competitors without breaking the law. So it is a criminal enterprise from beginning to end.”
Their efforts seem to be working. The Obama Administration changed its coal policy after Kennedy’s last meeting with former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. And Massey Coal hasn’t moved forward with its plan to strip Appalachia’s last pristine mountain of its coal. “These people stand up and they keep going and they’re a reminder of what we could all do,” says Haney. “We got this country because farmers in Concord and Lexington decided to stand up against the superpower of the world. So for people who want our democracy to be something inherited and something we get as a piece of patrimony, this is frustrating. But for those who see democracy as something you have to fight to protect in every generation whether it’s the Civil War or World War II or the Civil Rights movement or this, then it’s pretty cool.”