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Coal at the Movies • Classroom DVDs on Coal and Mountaintop Removal Mining

Compiled by Bill Bigelow

Home > Archives > Volume 25 No.3 - Spring 2011

Dirty Business: “Clean Coal” and the Battle for Our Energy Future
By Peter Bull
(Center for Investigative Reporting, 2010)
88 min.

Dirty Business is a long film for classroom use, but it is also the best and most comprehensive look at global dependence on coal, and explores some promising alternatives. The film is built around the work of Jeff Goodell, who wrote the important book Big Coal. Goodell begins with the devastating impact of coal mining in Appalachia. He remembers when he first saw the impact of mountaintop removal mining: “It was like the first time you look into a slaughterhouse after you’ve spent a lifetime of eating hamburgers.” The film travels to Mesquite, Nev., where residents are fighting a coal-fired plant, and also to China to explore the health impact of coal there—an important piece of the story not included in any of the other films reviewed here. The film’s strength is its exploration of alternatives to coal—wind, solar thermal, increased energy efficiency through recycling “waste heat”—which makes this a valuable resource for science as well as social studies classes. The treatment of carbon dioxide sequestration may confuse students; the film simultaneously suggests that this is a terrible idea in North America but a good one in China. But, on the whole, Dirty Business is a fine and lively overview of a complicated issue.

Burning the Future: Coal in America
By David Novack
(The Video Project, 2008)
88 min.

Jim Hecker, of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice, offers this summary near the opening of Burning the Future: “What we’re witnessing in Appalachia is probably the single most environmentally destructive activity in the United States today. Whole mountains are being chewed up and their waste is being dumped into nearby streams.” Burning the Future shows us how this affects people living in the mountains of West Virginia without presenting them simply as victims. The film could be subtitled “The Birth of a Community Organizer”: We watch Maria Gunnoe, one of the most compelling individuals in any of these films, as she turns her anger into activism. Chapter 4, which profiles the work of scientist Ben Stout, presents a wonderful example of science-for-society in action and could be used in biology or chemistry classes to show how “doing science” can make a real difference in people’s lives. In chapter 6, coal country residents come to realize that their drinking water is killing them, and they commit themselves to do something about it. (See “Got Coal” for descriptions of chapters 2 and 8.) Burning the Future does not have much to say about climate change, and it waxes a bit nostalgic about “real” underground coal mining. Nonetheless, this is a rich classroom resource that prompts students to think about where our electricity comes from. Each chapter is roughly 12 minutes long.

Deep Down: A Story from the Heart of Coal Country
By Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin
(www.deepdownfilm.org, 2010)
57 min.

Deep Down offers an intimate look at what happens as neighbors are pitted against each other when a coal company proposes to strip-mine in the hills above Maytown, Ky. The film is built around Beverly May, who is determined to resist the coal company, and Terry Ratliff, who could sorely use the money the coal company is offering to lease some of his land for coal mining. The filmmakers present Ratliff’s indecision with sympathy, even as we cheer May’s tireless efforts to save her community. At a hearing, May addresses the miners, whose livelihoods depend on continued mining: “I would like you to know that I work in a small clinic that takes care of people who are poor and who don’t have insurance. I see every day many of your brothers. You are not my enemy. And I’m not yours. We are all victims of the same coal companies. It’s just that you’re on the top of the mountain and I’m down at the bottom. We are not enemies.” As an antidote to cynicism, I wish that every student in the country could meet the dedicated and compassionate Beverly May. Deep Down may be too slow, too “small” a story to hold some students’ attention, but this is a rare and remarkable teaching resource that shows the nitty-gritty process of organizing: the meetings, petitions, one-on-one conversations, phone calls, and demonstrations. The courage of Maytown residents is palpable. As one resident testifies late in the film: “Just imagine a society that is dependent on blowing up mountain after mountain after mountain. That there is a group of people that decided to stand up against it, that is exceptional.”

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