BP, Climate Blues? ‘On Coal River’ Film Arrives in DC with Triumphant Story of Nation’s Most Inspiring, Fearless Activists

Jeff Biggers Jun 29, 2010

Feel like we’re living in a summer of hopeless environmental disasters and faltering energy policy leadership — the spewing BP oil debacle, the Upper Big Branch coal mining tragedy, and the floundering climate and clean energy bill?

A road map to clean energy hope has arrived in Washington, DC from the Appalachian coalfields in the long-awaited blockbuster new film documentary, On Coal River.

Or, as coalfield activist Bo Webb declares: “We’re on a mission to save the planet.”

This Thursday, June 24, acclaimed filmmakers Adams Wood and Francine Cavanaugh–and the film’s celebrated coalfield activists, Judy Bonds, Ed Wiley, Debbie Jarrell and Bo Webb–will take part in a special screening of On Coal River at the Capitol Hill Visitors Center, Orientation North Theater, co-sponsored by Representatives Patrick Kennedy and Heath Shuler, and citizens group Appalachian Voices, before making their world premiere on Friday, June 25th, 6:15 pm, at the AFI/Silverdocs Film Festival in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Six years in the making, On Coal River goes straight to ground zero in the energy debate — the coal war frontlines in the battle with Massey Energy over devastating mountaintop removal mining operations. Far from any dour cautionary tale of despair, the film chronicles a besieged mining community’s determined and often revelatory steps to get beyond their anger, hopelessness and grief, and demand that their state and federal officials live up to our nation’s promise of environmental justice and human rights.

If hope, as civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin once noted, “arouses, as nothing else can arouse, a passion for the possible,” then On Coal River just might be the most inspiring and triumphant story of a possible clean energy future.

“Stopping mountaintop removal and strip-mining in the coalflelds,” says Stephanie Pistello, the national field coordinator of Appalachian Voices and a coal miner’s granddaughter from southwestern Virginia, “is the first step in addressing problems of climate change and fossil fuel corruption.” As a long-time advocate who has worked with coalfield activists to bring their stories to Capitol Hill and cities around the nation, Pistello considers the film documentary to be a timely and powerful boost for national environmental campaigns:

On Coal River illuminates and clearly articulates the incredible grip dirty coal holds on communities and their politicians, a grip that is so strong, communities have to beg and plead with their representatives for clean water, a safe elementary school for their children, and protection from blasting above their homes. This is a place where, like we are seeing in the Gulf Coast, what is best for the industry is often put before what is best for the people.Bo, Judy, Ed and Maria are living, breathing examples of democracy in action, of citizens standing up to corporate greed. As we move forward through the muck of the BP oil spill disaster, and watch Don Blankenship continue to steer Massey Energy with a deplorable record of negligence and violations, Americans are becoming more aware of the power that the fossil fuels industries wield over Washington. We know that now is the time to turn the tables in favor of the health and happiness of our communities, and these four Americans show us how it’s done!”

As one of the most compelling and transcendent narratives on the human costs of coal and strip-mining, On Coal River follows the journey of the four West Virginia citizens over six years, and their incredible transformation from so-called victims to fearless and informed experts on mining permits, regulations and procedures, as well as community organizing and direct action strategies.

Former coal miner Ed Wiley goes from a powerless grandfather to an intrepid debater with the sycophantic coal-peddling West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, in his “Pennies of Promise” campaign to move his granddaughter’s elementary school from coal-dust generating silos and a toxic preparation plant, and downslope of a dangerous 2.8 billion toxic coal slurry impoundment; Vietnam veteran and coal miner’s son Bo Webb, who lives beneath the daily blasting and silica dust of an encroaching mountaintop removal, transforms from a businessman into a celebrated direct action hero; Maria Lambert, living in a community stricken by coal slurry-contaminated water, corrals scientists and community members and incompetent state officials into a campaign for clean water; and Judy Bonds, the Goldman Prize Award-winning activist, weaves through the documentary as the undaunted Coal River Mountain Watch leader, who reminds all audiences, “We all live downstream.”

It is Wiley, in fact, who reminds viewers that mountaintop removal coal–burned in states across the country–is a national issue.

Several years ago, as the film captures, Ed Wiley walked over 450 miles from Charleston, West Virginia to Washington, DC, in his campaign for a new elementary school. In New York City, describing the destruction of over 500 mountains, hundreds of miles of streams and untold communities from mountaintop removal operations to a passerby on the street, he appeals: “This is where clean coal is going.” Amazingly, Wiley never lost hope.

Two months ago, Wiley’s campaign came to a victorious end, when funds were found for a new elementary school in Coal River Valley.

For Webb, who has made numerous trips to testify in front of members of Congress and the EPA and other federal offices, the film comes at a pivotal movement in whether Congress will take further steps than the Obama administration’s regulatory actions this spring and pass the Clean Water Protection Act. Webb says:

“I am feeling more determined than ever and looking forward to the congressional screening of On Coal River. We have fought this battle regionally for many years. We have succeeded in bringing attention to this injustice to Americans everywhere, but it has become clearly evident that coal industry-controlled legislators in Appalachian states are not going to protect our mountains or our citizens from mountaintop removal coal mining. In spite of the recent ACOE announcement to suspend NP 21 permits we continue to witness Massey Energy blast our beautiful mountains and streams into piles of pulverized rock and mud rubble, transforming the beautiful Coal River Valley from an amazing incubator of life into a tomb of death. Now, it is time for the US Congress to hear from the victims of mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal will never be regulated. It must be banned and abolished, forever.”

Judy Bonds adds:

“With movies like On Coal River, we hope to open up America’s hearts and eyes to what coal does to good community folk. We are not expendable people; we are human beings that only want to be treated like the rest of America. We fought for six years for a safe school and our determination shows the true character of the real ‘hillbilly.”

For more information on the Silverdocs premiere, which will include a special performance by Rev. Billy and his choir, see On Coal River. Here’s the trailer:


Jeff Biggers is the author of Reckoning at Eagle Creek: The Secret Legacy of Coal in the Heartland (Nation Books, 2010).

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