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Mountaintop Mining Movies

Rob Perks

Posted February 9, 2009

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Watching TV yesterday I stumbled upon a great mountaintop removal film now airing on the Sundance channel.  I recall hearing about "Burning the Future" last year while it was being filmed, but I hadn't realized it was out.  This movie even features a cameo by NRDC's executive director, Peter Lehner, debunking the myth of "clean" coal. 

As a service to movie buffs who want to witness the world's worst mining practice on the big screen, I hereby provide a roundup of all the movies I know out there that either touch or focus on mountaintop mining.  Please don't consider this a comprehensive list by any means.  In fact, if you know of any films that I neglect to mention, feel free to let me know!

"Black Diamonds: Mountaintop Removal and the Fight for Coalfield Justice"

Producer/Director: Catherine Pancake (Bullfrog Films)

Released: 2006


Summary:  Black Diamonds is an award-winning feature documentary exploring radical community resistance to the explosive rise of mountaintop removal coal mines in Appalachian states.  The film illustrates in graphic detail the destructive effects of mountaintop removal seen through the eyes of local citizens, as well as national experts.  When it was released in 2006, Black Diamonds was the first comprehensive overview of surface mining practices from the 1950s to the present.  The film's approach includes a wide range of testimony from local citizens mixed with community meetings, and various dramatic turning-points including the disastrous 2001 floods, major MTR legal decisions, the tragic death of a child from an errant boulder dislodged from a strip mine site, safety issues at Marsh Fork Elementary, and the beginning civil disobediance push of Mountain Justice Summer.

"Mountain Mourning"

Producer/Director: B.J. Gudmundsson

Released: 2006


Summary:  A Christians for the Mountains Feature Film confronts the abusive practice of Mountaintop Removal Coal Mining.   Filmmaker B. J. Gudmundsson uses photography and personal stories to create an epiphany -- a personal awakening -- as nature's beauty is starkly contrasted with scenes of ruin.  Powerful narration is supported by traditional gospel and Appalachian Music to tell this story of tragedy and hope.  "Mountain Mourning" calls upon Christians and their churches to summons moral courage and effective advocacy that will bring healing and justice to this land and its people. (Run Time: 30 min)

"Rise Up! West Virginia"

Director:  B.J. Gudmundsson (PatchWork Films)

Released: 2007


Summary:  Filmmaker B.J. Gudmundsson takes a personal journey from her life-long home in the eastern mountains of West Virginia to the southern coalfields of her beloved state.  Once there, she joins the Mountain Keepers who have been fighting a 20-year battle to save their homes from the destructive practice of Mountaintop Removal coal mining.  The stories of struggle and visions of hope open a door to the complex issue that is threatening the future of West Virginia. 

"Kilowatt Ours: A Plan to Re-Energize America"

Producer/Director: Jeff Barrie

Released: 2007


Summary:  Filmmaker Jeff Barrie offers hope as he turns the camera on himself and asks, "How can I make a difference?"  In his journey Barrie explores the source of our electricity and the problems caused by energy production including mountain top removal, childhood asthma and global warming.  Along the way he encounters individuals, businesses, organizations, and communities who are leading the way, using energy conservation, efficiency and renewable, green power all while saving money and the environment.

"Crimes Against Nature"

Producer/Director: Angus Yates

Released: 2008


Summary:  The hard-hitting and refreshingly candid nonfiction feature film Crimes Against Nature, inspired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr.'s best-seller of the same title, details the systematic dismantling of America's environmental laws and policies by the Bush administration and its corporate cronies.  Unfolding with the suspense of a classic crime story, this irreverent film exposes the shadowy interplay of people, places, memos, and meetings behind a corporate profit-grab that has gone largely unnoticed by the mainstream media and the American people.  Blending investigative journalism with political satire and dark humor, the film tells the stories of average Americans victimized by corporate greed and political corruption.

"Mountain Top Removal"

Producer/Director: Michael Cusack O'Connell (Haw River Films)

Released: 2007


Summary:  This documentary explores how strip mining in West Virginia has affected local communities.  Shot over two years, the film follows citizens and conservation groups as they oppose the coal industry's methods and toxic waste produced in the process of stripping the Appalachian mountaintops.

"Burning the Future: Coal in America"

Producer/Director: David Novack

Released: 2008


Summary:  Writer/director David Novack examines the explosive conflict between the coal industry and residents of West Virginia.  Confronted by emerging "clean coal" energy policies, local activists watch a world blind to the devastation caused by coal's extraction.  Faced with toxic ground water, the obliteration of 1.4 million acres of mountains, and a government that appeases industry, our heroes demonstrate a strength of purpose and character in their improbable fight to arouse the nation's help in protecting their mountains, saving their families, and preserving their way of life.

"MINE" (formerly Ghosts of Appalachia)

Co-Directors: Jennifer Gilomen & Sally Rubin

Released: (expected completion date August 2009) Screening Fall 2009


Summary:  This documentary looks at the centuries-old complexities behind the fight for this black rock (coal) that fuels our nation.  MINE follows several members of a community in Eastern Kentucky as their community and landscape begins to change dramatically through mining.  By asking us to trace the power lines from our homes to people far removed from our daily lives, MINE inspires Americans to preserve Appalachia and our shared legacy. 

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Ross BallardFeb 10 2009 01:17 PM

Nice work. I've seen several of these. However, my question is why do you only focus on video movies? There is a great 7 CD 'audiomovie' called 'When Miners March' complete with a 16 songs protest music CD at National reviews of that work are also posted there. It was this audiomovie and my insistance that got The History Channel to mention MTR in a recent documentary called 'Hillbilly: The Real Story'. Keep up the good blog. Just remember, there are more and more recording artists working in Audio (podcasting and audiobooks) these days.

Ross... Audiobooks

Rob PerksFeb 10 2009 02:34 PM

Excellent point about audio, Ross. People should also check out Kathy Mattea's new album, "Coal." Kathy is a great country singers and WV native who opposes MTR.

Rob PerksFeb 11 2009 11:38 AM

Thanks to Dana Kuhnline at the Alliance for Appalachia for enlightening me on a few more MTR movies out there. Be sure to catch these flick, if you can:

producer: Sasha Waters (Room 135 Productions)
Released: 2003
Razing Appalachia explores the controversial issue of mountaintop removal mining by following a grassroots fight to stop the process in West Virginia. Set in Pigeonroost Hollow, a valley in the town of Blair in the misty folds of the Appalachian Mountains, the film follows the journey of several families as they struggle to protect their land. In May 1998, Arch Coal, Inc. announced it would expand its Dal-Tex strip mine just above the small town of Blair. Rock and soil debris from a mountaintop mine stretching five square miles would bury Pigeonroost Hollow and Creek. Razing Appalachia is the story of the fight between Blair residents, the coal company, and 400 union miners who will lose their jobs if the Dal-Tex strip mine is not expanded.

Director: Francine Cavanaugh (Mountain Eye Media
Released: TBD (filming started in 2004, but they need more funding)
The film, On Coal River, tells the story of mountaintop removal through the lives of people like Ed Wiley – a remarkable man who has been a great inspiration to many. Ed is a former coal miner whose granddaughter attends an elementary school that sits next to a mountaintop removal site. Seeing footage of this elementary school, with sludge dam and coal silo looming over it, you start to understand what some people are willing to sacrifice – for cheap coal.

Producer: Mari-Lynn C. Evans (Evening Star Production)
Released: April 2005
The documentary, The Appalachians, explores both the history of Appalachia and its present: the folk music, people, culture, and land. To tell the history of Appalachian mountain people, the producers use mountain songs as an integral part of the film. The story of Appalachia is about the struggle for and with the land. The film features Johnny Cash in his last film interview.

Director: Ross Spears
Released: April 9 2009 (on PBS at 10 PM EST)
The four part series, APPALACHIA: A History of Mountains and People, is the first environmental history series ever made. An all-star cast including Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson and best-selling novelist Barbara Kingsolver, explore the intersection of natural history and human history in one of America’s grandest treasures.

Director: Jarred “Parson Brown” Hill
Released: TBA
Topless America is a group of students, artists, and activists on a mission to document the fight against mountaintop removal mining and the destruction caused by America’s coal industry on the land and people of the Appalachian Mountains. This project is not just a documentary, it is a story about real people born into the world at a time when we are rapidly destroying it.

Steve FesenmaierFeb 11 2009 04:55 PM

Great list. I have one that includes many other films. Glad someone else has addressed the growing list of films on coal mining and what it does.

Rob PerksFeb 13 2009 11:25 AM

Wow, Steve sure knows what he's talking about! Check out his great additions to the list of MTR movies:

Films on Stripmining and
Mountaintop Removal Mining
By Steve Fesenmaier February 2009

Some of these films are available from any local public library in West Virginia from WVLC. Others are not. Sources are indicated. The Library of Congress has two subject headings that relate to these materials directly – strip mining and mountaintop removal mining.

Arranged chronologically

58 M. 1971 16MM/VHS McGraw-Hill
Shows the determined efforts of one coal miner to save the mountains of Raleigh County, WV. from the "strippers." Demonstrates how he succeeded in obtaining strong state legislation in the name of environmental conservation.

50 M. 1977 Omnificent Systems
This is a landmark documentary that was shown in Congress and helped get federal laws passed on regulating stripmining. It is an independent production by Robert Gates on the ravages of strip mining around the country, both in Appalachia and in the other coalmining areas of the country. There is no script. No narrator. Music of Bartok is interwoven with songs and dialogue of people who live in the stripped regions. Access: WVLC 16 mm. DVD - March 2007- Robert Gates – 304-342-2624. See DVD description below.

28 M. 1981 VHS/16MM Mary Knoll
The recent super-merger of Conoco and DuPont sets the importance of this incisive film investigation into Appalachia. Filmed in Mingo County, WV. and Martin County, Ky. Interviews with the natives, organizers, and poets are intercut with the scenes of destruction. Floods, black lung, and uncontrolled strip mining disasters which are the result of ownership by huge multinational corporations which are primary forces in Appalachia. The postscript lists results of the arc land ownership study just published. Stars Wheeling Jesuit University president Rev. Hacala. Access: WVLC

1998 Omni Productions 32 M.
This film was produced locally in the summer of 1998 by Charleston filmmaker Bob Gates and reporter Penny Loeb, who interviewed 45 West Virginia residents affected by the blasting required for the form of strip mining called “mountaintop removal.” The video shows damage to wells and houses and describes the psychological effects of round-the-clock blasting on residents who live in the proximity of the mines. Access: WVLC, purchase from Robert Gates – 304-342-2624.

1998 Lisa Millimet 15 M.
GOLDENSEAL contributor Lisa Millimet, a New Hampshire resident who once lived in West Virginia and still owns land here, videotaped the effects of mountaintop removal mining in the Kayford area. Larry Gibson, who is leading a one-man fight to save his family’s 50 acres at Kayford Mountain from mountaintop removal, is the focus of this short documentary. Access: WVLC

1998 25 mins. ABC News
Ted Koppel explores the effects of mountaintop removal mining with opponent Larry Gibson and proponents. Gibson shows how the constant explosions have affected his remaining land including the family cemetery. Proponents argue that the US needs more domestic energy from coal. Access: WVLC and ABC News

59 mins. 1999 Appalshop
Strip or “surface” mining – where coal is blasted and scraped from the mountain surface – increased dramatically in the Appalachian region in 1961 when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) signed contracts to buy over 16 million tons of strip mined coal. Though cheaper for the buyer than deep mined coal, the damage done by strip mining was far reaching and had immediate impact on coalfield residents. To Save the Land and People is a history of the early grassroots efforts to stop strip mining in eastern Kentucky, where “broad form” deeds, signed at the beginning of the 20th Century, were used by coal operators to destroy the surface land without permission or compensation of the surface owner. The program focuses on the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, whose members used every means possible – from legal petitions and local ordinances, to guns and dynamite – to fight strip mining. The documentary makes a powerful statement about the land and how we use it, and how its misuse conflicts with local cultures and values. Access: Appalshop

15 mins. 2000 CBS News
Mike Wallace does the definitive story on mountaintop removal mining. Gubernatorial candidate Bob Wise used a clip of the story in 2000 in his campaign in which he defeated Gov. Underwood for his second consecutive term. Starting with the effects of federal judge Haden's ruling that MTR violated the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, Wallace explores the destruction of MTR on peoples’ lives, interviewing many people including leading anti-MTR people such as WV Secretary of State Ken Hechler, Joe Lovett from the Appalachian Center for the Economy and Environment, James Weekly and others. He also interviews Bill Raney, the president of the WV Coal Association. Wallace asks Gov. Underwood about the half million dollars donated to his campaign and another half million donated to his 1992 inaugural party. Underwood was a long-time employee of WV coal companies after his first term as WV governor. Ken Hechler believes this story is still the best one ever filmed on MTR and its impact on peoples’ lives. Access: CBS News purchase -

2002 27 mins. Appalshop
In the spirit of Dancing Outlaw, Tom Hansell explores the world of overweight coal-hauling trucks in eastern Kentucky. The U.S. Department of Energy reports that coal produces over half of our nation’s electricity. This film is built around a day in the life of a Kentucky coal truck driver. This digital documentary gives Americans a direct look at where our energy comes from, and reveals the human and environmental price we pay for our national addiction to fossil fuels. The narrative line follows two Kentucky coal truck drivers as they chase their version of the American dream. Viewers learn how the economics of the coal business demand that both drivers break the law every day. A veteran independent trucker plays the “cops and robbers” game with the weight crew from the Department of Transportation. A young driver debates whether to keep hauling coal or to move his family to the city. And, a father describes a collision with a coal truck that killed his teenage son. Facts and figures about coal as an energy source will place these individual struggles in a national context. Coal Bucket Outlaw examines the connection between coal haulers and the larger system that produces America’s electricity. If outlaws deliver half of our nation’s energy, are consumers and policymakers completely innocent? Access: $35 for small libraries and groups. Normal price is $150 college/university. $24.95 for home use only.

52 mins. 2003 Omni Productions
Robert Gates has been making films about the effects of stripmining since his first film, “In Memory of the Land and People.”(1977) Earlier he produced “All Shaken Up”(1998) about the effects of blasting from mountaintop mining on to the homes of people in the Southern coalfields. This film shows the relationship between mountaintop removal coal mining, steep slope timbering, and the wave of major regional flash floods that began on July 8, 2001 in Southern WV counties. Over 300,000 acres of land have been mined by this practice; valley fills have filled in 750 to 1,000 miles of streams. Six major regional flash floods and the Liburn Disaster have resulted as well as major impacts on 47 communities, 12,000 homes and businesses, and an estimated 1 billion dollars in damages. People have been killed in these floods. Mucked was previewed at the Spring Fling conference for librarians in April 2002 and had its official world premiere in Nov. 2003 at the Shepherdstown American Conservation Film Festival. An earlier version, “Flood Stories,” had its premiere at the Flooded Out Film Festival in October, 2002. It won honorable mention in the investigative reporting category at EarthVision, an international environmental film festival in California. It was shown in 2004 by Santa Cruz public television. “Mucked” was also shown on WBGN in Pittsburgh during the Independent Filmmakers series Nov. 16-20, 2003. Bob and journalist Penny Loeb (who did a US News story on MTR and is writing a book on it) frequently work together to document the impacts of mountaintop removal and logging in the state of West Virginia. The flooding section of Penny’s website- -won second place in online reporting at the Society of Environmental Journalists 2003 awards ( Penny has a column in Nov. 2003 Blue Ridge Country magazine. Access: call him at (304) 342-2624 or e-mail him at: Also available on DVD.

34 mins. 2003 Real Earth Productions
Award-winning nature photographer Jim Clark is profiled in this story about his love and passion for nature photography. Clark is a native son of War, WV. The program has about 125 slides from the Allegheny Highlands of West Virginia, many of which also appear in Jim’s books. The program includes stories surrounding some of the photographs, childhood memories, his approach to nature photography, a devastating fire that destroyed all his work, and his concern about mountain top removal. Filmed by Hardy County filmmaker Ray Schmitt. Access: Ray Schmitt, Real Earth Productions.

2004 50 mins. History Channel
Coal is an ancient source of energy. More than half our energy still comes from coal. WV State University historian Dr. Stuart McGhee (who starred in Gary Simmons’ series, “The Rock that Burns,”) talks about different ways that coal has been mined and how it is mined now. New techniques like mountaintop removal mining are shown. Appalachian activists talk about the many risks coal mining creates including massive flooding of people’s homes and neighborhoods. Industry leaders state their own position on these complaints. Access: $ 24.95 Product No. AAE-43704 History Channel

55 mins. 2005 Appalshop
A documentary about the effects of the Martin County sludge flood in 2000, releasing 10 times more effluent into the environment than the Exxon Valdez oil spill. The film focuses on the reactions of Martin County residents and Jack Spadaro, the long-time mine safety engineer who is now under threat from the Bush Administration for refusing to sign the official report on this disaster. Spadaro is a native West Virginian, working for more than 30 years on coal mine safety in West Virginia, most recently as director of the Mine and Health Safety Academy in Beckley, beginning his career as a mining engineer looking at the Buffalo Creek Disaster. Access: Appalshop.

25 mins. 2005 Appalshop
Kentucky writer Wendell Berry reads his essay of the same name as scenes of Appalachian coalfields are shown. The images were captured by director Herb E. Smith throughout his 35 years as a filmmaker. The essay points to the violent consequences of the global economy and calls for a more locally based "peaceable economy.” Berry wrote the essay in reaction to events of September 11, 2001. James Caudill, Dirk Powell, Martha Scanlan, and Riley Baugus perform the musical score. It is based on Jean Ritchie's Cool of the Day. Access: Appalshop

2005 30 mins. WVPBS
Reporter Anna Sale narrates this investigation of Don Blankenship, the president of Massey Energy. Blankenship told the Charleston press he considered the report to be balanced. Others think that it is not accurate because the damage he has done to the environment and workers’ health is minimized. He is famous for buying union mines, closing them, and reopening them as non-union. He is best known for financing the campaign against Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw in fall 2004, spending millions of dollars. ( This is shown in detail in Wayne Ewing’s film,” The Last Campaign.”) Appalshop footage of his early days is used, and various supporters present positive opinions about this management style and contributions to southern WV communities. Various reporters and detractors are also interviewed. The fact that he even threatened to sue WVPBS is noted. Access: WVPBS, $25, (304) 556-4900. Also available at You Tube -
Five parts

2006 14 mins.
Greensburg Salem High School senior Kaitlyn Walton and juniors Jill Sompel and Stephanie Loughner produced the 14-minute film to describe what life is like around MTR. Coal River Mountain Watch’s Hillary Hosta said, “The girls did a great job clearly articulating with pictures and narrative what can be a very complex issue. The piece is concise, to the point and moving.” It premiered on Feb. 11 at the West Virginia Energy Gathering” for young people. ( Limited copies are available for outreach and educational use. Access;

2006 Film Two of The Mountain Mourning Collection 21 minutes
An outing with Maria Gunnoe in Bob White, West Virginia, provides a snapshot of the Mountaintop Removal Mining that has moved into her back yard. Filmmakers B. J. Gudmundsson and Doug Chadwick traverse the rocky road up Cazy Mountain to survey the aftermath of a strip-mining operation. Maria’s Native American ancestry is revealed through her memories of family and their respect for the land. Her story is one of courage and strength that is woven around the heart by musical recordings of her mother, father and uncle.

2006 Film Three of The Mountain Mourning Collection 18 minutes
Larry Gibson is the only permanent resident on Kayford Mountain, just 35 miles from the capital city of Charleston, West Virginia. For 19 years he has held on to his fifty acres – that which remains of his ancestral home. What was once a living community is now an island of life surrounded by death. The filmmakers join Larry and a band of friends as they pass through “Hell’s Gate” and – in one breathtaking moment – come upon “the end of the world.”

Rebecca MacNeice made and posted these three digital videos about the effects of mountaintop removal mining. The first, “Mountain,” is about anti-MTR activist Larry Gibson giving a tour to other activists during a national conference on Memorial Day weekend 2006. The second, ‘Level” includes a brief narration given by WV’s only anti-MTR politician Dr. Ken Hechler and part of activist Doris "Granny D" Haddock’s speech given at the Memorial Day 2006 conference. “Pennies” is about a group of people who are trying to raise money to replace a toxic school, Marsh Fork Elementary School in Sundial, West Virginia, that is threatening by a coal silo and slurry pond that could destroy it. Access:

2006 30 mins.
Virginia Bendell Moore was a communications student at the University of Virginia when she created this excellent new documentary on the effects of mountaintop removal mining, mainly in southern West Virginia. Funding to produce it came from UVA media grants and was made at the Digital Media
Lab there. She uses classic film clips, borrowed from “Harlan County, USA” and
other sources to counterpoise the scenes of destruction and denial that take place on camera. I don’t know if every film on Appalachia needs to open with a similar wailing, either by a man or a woman, but this film, like many others, does open that way. The film opens with WV politicians like Earl Ray Tomlin and Senator Rockefeller talking about the importance of coal to the state. Gov. Manchin’s speech about “West Virginia – Open for Business” along with
his statements about “moving WV to the forefront of the coal industry” are also shown. President of the WV Coal Association Bill Raney is interviewed, talking about the
coal industry being “the real environmentalists,” echoing what Warren
Hylton, president of Patents Coal, says. There is nothing in the film about the many coal mine deaths that took place last year.
The “usual suspects” are interviewed on the anti-MTR side – Larry Gibson, Ed Wiley, and Maria Gunnoe. Also interviewed is Lenny Kohn from Appalachian Voices, Sam Cook, Appalachian studies prof at Virginia Tech,
Kenny from Logan County about the bad water, and others. The photography, editing, music, and sound are all good. This film, like
all of the other new MTR films, was made for little money using contemporary digital video equipment. The film was shown at UVA in Charlottesville and several other places. Hopefully many more students and people around the Appalachian area and the rest of the world will get to see it because it does a fine job showing “both sides” of the
environmental war going on in our backyards.

2006 2.51 mins. I Love Mountains
Introductory video for the National Memorial for the Mountains, an online memorial in Google Earth that tells the story of 450 mountains destroyed by mountaintop removal.
This video is part of the National Memorial for the Mountains, hosted by Access:

2007 18 mins. Patchwork Films
Using stunning photography and beautiful religious music, the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia is presented as a wilderness area that must be preserved for future generations. It is over 900,000 acres in size, located in 10 different counties. Facts about the forest and Biblical links are emphasized along with the appreciation of God’s creation. Viewers are encouraged to contact national and state legislators in support of protecting WV wilderness areas forever. Access – Patchwork Films at

2008 90 mins. Center for Independent Documentary
This is the first feature-length documentary to capture the breadth and vitality of America's religious-environmental movement. In rural communities, suburbs and cities, people of faith are rolling up their sleeves in practical and far-reaching ways. Offering a profound message of hope, it shows individuals and communities driven by the deepest source of inspiration - their spiritual and religious convictions - being called to re-examine what it means to be human and how we live on this planet.
Throughout, the film attempts to paint an honest picture of how much work will be needed to stem the tide of environmental devastation. Its compelling characters and stories inspire the vision and commitment that addressing the challenge will require.
The 90-minute documentary is designed for theatrical and community screenings, and for broadcast, yet each of the eight stories also stands on its own. Religious communities include – Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, Native Americans, evangelical Protestants and others. Access:

25 mins. 2009 – not complete as of now Appalshop
Tom Hansell is best known for his powerful film about overweight coal trucks in eastern Kentucky, “Coal Bucket Outlaw.” His new film is about West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky as exporters of both coal and electricity. Exploitation of natural resources for power generation makes the impact of the nation’s electricity consumption highly visible in these three states. The film combines present day documentary footage with old educational films and an animated folk tale to reveal the hidden costs of America's major source of electricity. Access: Appalshop at

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