FILM ANNOTATION: COAL COUNTRY


1. Title, director and release year?
- Coal Country, Phylis Geller, 2009

2. What is the central argument or narrative of the film?
- A quote in this film sums up the central argument nicely: “Today’s destruction is not tomorrow’s prosperity.” Essentially, the film narrates and depicts the issues surrounding the coal industry, including dangers to miners, air pollution, destruction of the environment, and water pollution (among others). The film argues that the coal industry is not as profitable as we think because of all the problems that are associated with obtaining coal. The contributors to the film (most of whom live in ‘coal country’) are convinced that the coal industry shows “no commitment to the future,” and that alternatives should be used sooner rather than later.

3. What sustainability problems does the film draw out?
- This film does an excellent job of delving into the matrix of problems surrounding our nation’s use of coal. To begin with, there is the issue of worker safety in the mining industry. There are many health problems associated with the inhalation of coal and miners are not compensated enough for taking such health risks, never mind the occasional cave in that occurs despite mines meeting ‘safety’ codes.
- Another prominent issue was the air pollution that resulted from mountain top removal and its affect on entire neighborhoods’ quality of life. Residents spoke of ash coating their homes and cars, and even making its way into their homes despite air filtration systems. The images shown to illustrate the gravity of the air pollution were astonishing, including blackened air filtration screens and ashy windowsills (from within the home). The residents also discussed the ‘solutions’ to the air pollution problem, all of which were laughable (including building domes over coal factories).
- Also along the lines of pollution and poorer quality of life for residents was the water pollution. Residents collected samples from streams in their towns and the samples didn’t even seem to resemble water at all. They were jars of brown and black guck, and they were what their streams looked like. The mountain top removal strategy called for removing layers of soil to reach the valuable coal. These layers of soil are blown up with explosives and dumped into nearby valleys, thus affecting the local streams that flow throughout the surrounding towns. This destroys the quality of water within these towns, not to mention the surround environment as well.

4. What parts of the film did you find most persuasive and compelling? Why?
- The film used interviews of locals and officials involved with the coal industry as their primary sources of information. I found the interviews of the locals extremely compelling because it is hard to imagine living the way they do and putting up with the industry, which has become a bully in their area. To see firsthand exactly how much of an impact the coal industry has on their daily lives was astounding. It is no wonder they are advocating against it.
- I did also find the interviews with former coal miners compelling as well. It was nice to see that some of them are trying to make coal mining ‘clean’ (although highly unlikely). It was also important to acknowledge that most coal miners are stuck in the industry as a means to make a living, not because they believe it is the best industry to be in. They have no choice but to support the industry, otherwise they would be unemployed with little skill for anything else.

5. What parts of the film were you not compelled or convinced by?
- I was not convinced at all by the idea of mountainside reclamation. The coal industry claims that once they have finished mining a mountainside, they reintroduce vegetation and wildlife to the mountainside, thus making it as good as new. However, this idea that you can make a mountain whole again, after blowing up a large portion of it is absurd. For one, blowing up a mountain forever changes the natural topography of that area, which could have disastrous implications. Also, with this new topography, who is to know what vegetation and wildlife would prosper on the mountainside? Even reintroducing the same vegetation and wildlife that were there pre-mining may not fare well in the new atmosphere. In my eyes, mountainside reclamation is better than leaving the mountainside bare, but not enough of a positive to justify the continuing use of mountaintop removal.

6. What additional information does this film compel you to seek out? Where do you want to dig deeper and what connections do you want to make with other issues, factors, problems, etc.?
- This film compelled me to seek out more information on the livelihoods of miners and just how widespread the issues depicted are. I am aware that mountaintop removal is now a popular way of obtaining coal in many regions; however, are we far enough in to justify a need for the industry, rather than looking elsewhere for alternatives? Coal miners can be retrained to work in greener fields, dealing with green energy sources that are safer for them, their families, their neighbors, and their environment. This film made me wonder just how complex a transition from coal to, say, windmill farms would be. Clearly residents in coal country are demanding a change; the only thing holding us back are the workers themselves, dependent on the industry for survival.

7. What audiences does the film best address? What kind of imagination is fostered in viewers? Do you think the film is likely to change the way viewers think about and act on environmental problems?
- This film best addresses audiences who have little knowledge about the negatives of the coal industry. Most people know that coal is a primary source of energy in the United States but do not understand what implications come along with mining it. I believe this film does an excellent job of serving a reality-check on what is really associated with coal mining and how it affects people beyond the miners themselves. I would hope this film makes viewers support green energy, or at least a transition away from coal.

8. What kinds of action or points of intervention are suggested by the film?
- The film primarily calls for support against the coal industry and for green energy. The film personalizes the negatives associated with mountaintop removal and the coal industry to make viewers want a change for their fellow man. It forces you to put yourself in their shoes and act on their behalf, regardless of where you are.

9. What could have been added to this film to enhance its environmental educational value?
- I have little knowledge about the coal industry and how it has evolved, so it may just be me but I was curious as to whether the way coal mining is down now is ‘better’ for the environment than the way it used to be done. If so, the logic behind the ‘clean coal’ campaign may make more sense. All in all, perhaps expanding on exactly what clean coal entails would have been nice to know, and maybe even made the film more impartial.

[posted April 23, 2010]