Midway through “The Last Mountain,” the gripping and important documentary examining the devastation of Appalachian mountaintop coal mining, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. proclaims onscreen, “Corporations do not want democracy. They want profits.” It’s a bold statement, yet carries gravitas coming from a member of the Kennedy family.
In Los Angeles recently to help promote “The Last Mountain,” the documentary in which he appears, Kennedy graciously sat down to a roundtable of reporters to answer questions about the film and the hardships facing America. Kennedy’s knowledge of history and the environment is immense, as is his passion. Kennedy says he’s always been concerned about the environment. As an 8 year old he wrote a letter to, and then visited, his Uncle John (President Kennedy) in the Oval Office to discuss air pollution along K Street, and how he thought it was like someone was stealing the good air. (He also brought along a salamander in a jar that was later released in the Rose Garden fountain – he was eight, after all.)
Through the years, Kennedy has consistently defended the environment, as he does here in “The Last Mountain.” Continuing the theme of “pollution equals theft,” Kennedy compares the process of mountaintop coal mining as theft of the mountain, and refers to Massey Energy (the sole coal miner in the Coal River Valley of Appalachia) as being the thieves. Citing the ancient laws of the Magna Carta of 1215, where air, water and wildlife were decreed to belong to all people, creating a liberty of the commons, Kennedy states that these are basic rights, then and now. For example, during the first Earth Day in 1970, 20 million people, 10 percent of the population marched demanding the return of the liberty of the commons. The resulting Clean Water Act of 1972 was, as such, a restatement of the Magna Carta, he says. Yet today these laws are dissolving through political negligence and corporate influence, Kennedy notes.
Kennedy believes that the coalition between government and corporate powers is hurting the environment. It especially hurts the people in West Virginia. Kennedy gives as an example a scene from “The Last Mountain,” when he meets with Bill Raney, the president of West Virginia Coal Association and asks him how Massey Energy could have 60,000 health and safety violations over six years and how the state can look the other way. Raney doesn’t have an answer except that he’s protecting jobs.
Kennedy continues his history lesson by citing warnings made 50 and then 150 years ago. Both proclamations came from revered presidents who warned of corporate ties to government. Kennedy reminds us that while in office (1953-1961) President Eisenhower warned the United States of the negative consequences of the military-industrial complex. Then there’s President Lincoln, a great Republican, who had worries about big business as well when he remarked during the Civil War, “I have the South in front of me, and I have the bankers behind me. And for my country, I fear the bankers more.”
This all links back to the people of Coal River Valley in “The Last Mountain” and their “David vs. Goliath” fight that Americans need to get behind. Having laid the groundwork of history, Kennedy the environmentalist takes over to explain that the Appalachian Mountains are the richest eco-system north of the equator. When the glaciers moved through the U.S. 12,000 years ago, the mountains and valleys of Kentucky and West Virginia were untouched. This then created areas of extremely rich eco-systems. For instance, in the Appalachian Mountains there are 80 dominant tree species; there’s more bio-diversity here than anywhere north of the equator. And big coal is destroying this diverse environment.
Kennedy hopes that “The Last Mountain” will shine a light on the devastating effects of mountaintop coal mining as well as illustrate our need for renewable energy sources. He also hopes that we stop the disconnect between American values and what’s happening all around us. Documentarians like Bill Haney and his film “The Last Mountain” is the new breed of investigative journalists bringing to the public hard-hitting stories that effect us all. “The Last Mountain” calls out to us to take a stand for our future. The question is will we?
“The Last Mountain” opens in Los Angeles on June 15. It’s Rated PG and runs 95 minutes.