Turn on your light switch and the lamp turns on. Do you really know where the electricity comes from?
A surprising statistic is that over one-half of the electricity generated in the US comes from burning coal, arguably the most environmentally damaging of sources. Besides the rapacious methods used to collect the coal, its use is also a major producer of CO2 (contributing 36% of the US emissions) and of many toxins such as arsenic and mercury which are trace elements in the mined coal.
Brooklyn director and co-writer David Novack's documentary Burning the Future-Coal in America is a powerful-but-not-polemic, damning indictment of the coal industry in Southern West Virginia, a state whose politics, life and environment are heavily in thrall to the coal industry. Almost all of the electrical power generated in W Va. is from coal, and the industry contributes strongly to the political establishment there ..."Gov. Joe Manchin received $571,214 of the $673,251 in coal contributions made to last year's gubernatorial candidates, or nearly 85 percent of the total."
Any wonder that Manchin comes across in this film as more-than-ready to bend over to accommodate the coal producers? In talking with coal workers, Manchin and others leave no doubt as the starkness of the choice; you're either with coal or you're against jobs. More startling then is the statistic that we're talking 15,000 jobs in the state, a number also dropping steadily as the labor-intensity of coal mining diminishes.
Burning the Future is the story of a few courageous people whose lives have been overturned by the process of mining coal called Mountaintop Removal. Which is exactly what it implies, the explosive destruction of mature forested mountain tops in order to get to the coal seams underneath.
It is the story of Maria Gunhoe, new to community organization, whose land "has changed completely" from the time her grandfather bought it and whose house shakes with the explosives and whose water is black with coal dust. With no trace of bitterness but plenty of determination, she is an articulate spokesperson against the coal industry's excesses and prevarications.
It is the story of ecologist Ben Stout, who talks about the destruction of forest habitat which is amongst the most diverse cultures in the world, and of the inadequate restoration of the land even though it seems to have recovered (who realized that by filling in the valleys with the detritus of the mountain top, you reduce land area and therefore affect diversity?)
And it is the story of many, many others who are waking up to realize the environmental disaster that this method of "mining" represents (traditional in-ground mining, largely abandoned for its higher labor costs and, to be fair,its greater danger, is not anywhere nearly as damaging.) Mountaintop removal also causes blockage of natural streams when the vast quantities of material are shifted, which, along with the occasionally leaking coal slurry ponds, pollutes the water supply causing illness among the local residents.
We hear from many such West Virginians who were directly affected, and follow their protests, petitions and arrests. The director lets the participants speak for themselves, never intruding on their words (well there were a few times the otherwise wonderful music in the film was a little too much on cue.)
As with many ecological issues, the Bush administration is not on the side of the angels. Mr Bush is "a strong ally [who has] steered hundreds of millions of dollars to develop technologies that could reduce coal emissions," to produce the concept of "clean coal," clearly shown in the film for the oxymoron that it is.