CNN's Soledad O'Brien profiles mountaintop removal - watch this Sunday
CNN’s Soledad O’Brien takes on the mountaintop removal debate this Sunday in a 1-hour documentary special, The Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America. This presentation brings the issue of mountaintop removal before what may be its largest national audience yet. And that’s why I was disappointed to watch a preview cut of the program and see that CNN missed the opportunity to tell a fuller and more nuanced story about the people and places at stake in the mountaintop removal debate.
It’s pretty significant that a network like CNN and a person like Ms. O’Brien are giving this problem an hour of primetime. It’s also clear that CNN did some strong reporting to craft a story that viewers anywhere in the country will find personal, interesting, and important.
But crucial voices are missing from this piece, and it relies far too heavily on a clunky, over-simplified "us vs. them" theme. Somehow the show manages to acknowledge the facts about mountaintop removal actually killing jobs, yet still shoehorn the story into a factually unsupported "jobs. vs. the environment" frame.
Virtually unheard in The Battle for Blair Mountain are the many people who have been most deeply, personally harmed by mountaintop removal mining, through physical illness, life-threatening flooding, and livelihood-destroying damage to their homeplaces.
Much of the documentary focuses on Jim Dials, a rock truck driver at the Spruce No. 1 Mine site, and his wife, Linda, who represent the “pro-jobs” side of the debate. They wait anxiously for the Environmental Protection Agency’s final decision whether to veto MTR permits for the Spruce Mine, fearful that Jim’s job will be affected.
To represent the “pro-environment” side, the program homes in on the Dials’ neighbor Billy Smutko, who opposes MTR and has suffered property damage from nearby mountaintop mining. And, as the title implies, its centerpiece is this summer’s March on Blair Mountain, in which hundreds of people marched for five days to end MTR and preserve that historic site.
But as good a job as the program does at conveying the sorrow and anger of people whose history and culture is about to be erased by MTR, it misses the many stories of people whose lives have been even more profoundly disrupted by the practice. While the program acknowledges science pointing to serious health impacts, it does not interview people whose health has been seriously harmed.
Similarly, the program acknowledges the potential damage to nearby properities from blasting, water contamination, and coal dust, but does not interview any of the many people who have had their homes significantly damaged or destroyed by mountaintop removal.
The Battle for Blair Mountain would have benefitted from a portrayal of one or more of these people as intimate as its portrayal of the Diels. In short, the interview subjects selected and the way the story is told tend to inaccurately pit MTR as a matter of survival—a job and quality of life—vs. inconvenience or aesthetics.
And in the end, a more fundamental question is left unanswered. Why should Dials’ job depend on a practice that leaves his neighbors sick and their homes flooded? What will people like Dials do as Appalachian coal production inevitably continues to shrink? Even within the context of a one-hour documentary, CNN could have done more to at least raise these questions.
I’m curious to hear what you think about the program. I hope you’ll have a chance to watch it and let us know what you thought in the comments below or at our Facebook page. And if you’re one of the many people who has been more than inconvenienced by mountaintop removal, to put it lightly, we'd like to hear your story too.
The Battle for Blair Mountain: Working in America airs this Sunday, August 14, at 8 pm Eastern on CNN.
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