A publication of Appalachian Voices

A publication of Appalachian Voices

Appalachian Documentaries

Films Scrutinize the Impacts of Coal

By Theresa L. Burris

Residents of Appalachia have encountered prejudice through all types of media, some based on stereotypes of coal mining society. Fortunately, conscientious documentarians have surfaced over the years. They counter negative images of the region and examine the humanitarian struggles that come from the nation’s fossil fuel dependency and its inevitable consequences to Appalachians, their land, and their culture.

Mimi Pickering’s Hazel Dickens: It’s Hard to Tell the Singer from the Song (2001, Appalshop) gives a glimpse into the life of the singer/songwriter powerhouse. Viewers witness the power of song as protest when they hear Dickens croon “Black Lung” a cappella in homage to her brother who died from the dreaded miners’ disease in a state of destitute poverty.

Pickering’s The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man (1975), her first documentary for the nonprofit media arts center Appalshop, offers tragic footage of the 1972 slurry dam failure that killed 125 people. The testimony from victims of the flood is compelling, as is the arrogance of the Pittston coal executive, who unabashedly talks down to Pickering when she interviews him.

Everyday Appalachians’ stories are heard through cultural and environmental documentaries produced by the Appalshop Media Arts Center and other studios. Photo Courtesy of Tom Hansell

Catherine Pancake maintains a similarly unflinching stance in Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice (2006, Bullfrog Films). She looks at coal-mining issues in the twenty-first century, focusing on the destruction that occurs as a result of mountaintop removal and offering a space for the human victims to express their outrage.

In Coal Country (2009, Evening Star Productions) Phylis Geller and Mari-Lynn Evans issue a hard-hitting look into the lives of those living with the devastation of mountaintop removal or residing in the dark shadows of coal-fired power plants.
David Novack’s Burning the Future: Coal in America (2008, Specialty Studios Entertainment) dispels the industry-inspired myth of “clean coal” as he explores the toxic sludge and slurry ponds that result from “cleaning” the coal.

Robert Salyer delves even further into the dangers of coal waste run amok in Sludge (2005, Appalshop), which covers the 2000 Martin County, Ky., coal slurry spill, when 306 million gallons of sludge burst through a storage pit and into two tributaries of the Tug Fork River. Salyer captures how coal officials attempted to reassure people of the benign nature of the sludge by saying there was nothing to fear because everything in the sludge could be found on the periodic table.

In 2009, Tom Hansell produced The Electricity Fairy (Appalshop) about the building of Dominion Power’s coal-fired power plant in Southwest Virginia and is currently working on another documentary, After Coal: Welsh and Appalachian Mining Communities, which explores Welsh lessons on community and cultural survival after coal.

Another ongoing documentary project is examining the health tolls of a different fuel. Acceptable Limits, which has been in production since Feb. 2011, examines an aging nuclear plant in Erwin, Tenn., and the community impacted by the plant’s perilous pollution.

As threats to Appalachia evolve, so will the films that show the truth.

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  1. Linda Regula says:

    Inspired by Silas House, and my first shocking view of a mountaintop removal (MTR) site, I’ve completed a novel set against the backdrop of MTR. “Wildflowers Don’t Care Where They Grow” will be soon be available on Amazon.com. I tried to incorporate these facts about this devastating practice of mining “clean coal”; this poorly regulated practice must have stricker regulations, as of this date over 500 major mountains, thousands of miles of streams, waterways, and one-thriving valleys have been destroyed by the industry. Also that companies with MTR operations must be required to restore these mined areas so these sites will, once again, become viable for humans and animals to live rather than simply allowing the planting of exotic grasses which die off during the first freezing temperatures, leaving behind devastated landscapes, and shattered lives.
    I also wanted the public to understand these companies must stop polluting streams, (or “elevating streams” as the industry calls it) and building potentially dangerous sledge ponds holding millions of gallons of toxic water behind earthen dams built of discarded mining debris, and filling once-thriving valleys with this debris. Once the coal vein is removed, these corporations simply walk away from the devastation; their pockets stuffed with money. Also for those believing that regulating MTR will destroy jobs, there has been a drastic decline in mining jobs since this practice began because these mult-million dollar draglines stripping the land also replaces the jobs of hundreds of thousands of miners. Who wins? Not the land! Not coal miners! Not the displaced people whose homes, livihoods, and quality of life are destroyed! And certainly not PUR enviroment! I wanted this novel to voice facts about this practice, hopefully bringing it to the public’s attention, and prodding our politicians into couragously finding a better way.

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