Impassioned docu “Burning the Future: Coal in America” reps a strong indictment of mountaintop removal mining and its disastrous effects on the environment — a case made all the more convincing by the coal industry’s propaganda to the contrary. Focusing on a group of West Virginia folk resolved to fight the despoiling of their woodlands and the poisoning of their water, pic deeply entrenches itself in the landscape, conveying both the beauty and the ravagement of the Appalachians. Eco-docu, which opened Feb. 29 at Gotham’s Landmark Sunshine, holds appeal to those committed to the greening of America.
While coal is being touted for the improved cleanliness of its consumption (though it still contributes 36% of global warming emissions), docu concentrates on the unreported other side. Mountaintop removal mining, as helmer David Novack graphically illustrates, detonates the equivalent explosive power of a Hiroshima bomb every 11½ days. At risk are some 1.4 million acres of Appalachian woodlands that one ecologist ranks second only to the rainforests in diversity.
The tremendous by-products — tons of rock and dirt, and the chemicals used to separate and process coal — are dumped into the valleys, “contained” in myriad pools or pumped into abandoned shafts, short-term solutions that quickly and catastrophically begin to fail. The flawless beauty of Novack’s coverage of dynamited mountains, slurry pools and rapidly churned-out coal underscores the inexorability of the practice and the devastation in its wake.
The residents themselves eloquently attest to the ecological catastrophe. While Marie Gunnoe tells of the floodwaters that raged to within feet of her front door, others demonstrate the problem by simply turning on their tap water and speaking of life-threatening illnesses.
Moving seamlessly from individual experience to overview, pic also stresses the difficulty residents encounter in getting any sense of the big picture. As Gunnoe and fellow West Virginians band together at a grassroots level, they find themselves up against the unceasing promotion of coal as patriotic savior of the region and the country — a view promulgated by the coal industry, enforced by the government, proclaimed from billboards and taught to schoolchildren. In town meetings, they are demonized as enemies of gainful employment (even though mountaintop removal utilizes a small fraction of the workers employed in traditional mining).
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