Until the recent deadly West Virginia coal mine disaster became front-page news, Massey Energy wasn’t a company that most Americans outside of the Appalachian mining region had heard of. That it is now front and center, due to this catastrophe and an endless stream of accompanying media reports about their appalling record on everything from worker safety to age discrimination lawsuits as well as groundwater and air pollution, comes as no shock to documentarian Mike O’Connell.
O’Connell’s 2008 doc, “Mountaintop Removal,” chronicled the controversial practice of the title, which is a form of coal mining that does exactly what it says. In O’Connell’s doc, the injury to the rural environment was compounded by the fact that the Massey subsidiary’s mining operation operated 400 yards above the local Marsh Fork Elementary School and housed a toxic by-product pond and dam containing more than 2 million gallons of hazardous waste.
“(Massey CEO) Don Blankenship is a throwback to the old coal barons,” O’Connell says. “He started following me
on Twitter, so we could kind of communicate. His statements are so provocative and bizarre.
That’s one reason why Massey is not liked by the other coal companies in Appalachia,” continues O’Connell. “They’re the bad boy on the block. Up to this time he seemed to relish that role. But as so often happens to guys like Blankenship, they wind up hanging themselves. This mining disaster, it turns out, is about three miles from the dam and the school that are both featured in my film.”
Mountaintop Removal” received a flurry of attention after winning the Reel Current Award at the 2008 Nashville Film Festival, an honor that was bestowed and presented at the event by former Vice President Al Gore. The current controversy has ignited new interest in the film’s DVD, which is being sold on the website hawriverfilms.com, and is being programmed by PBS stations across the country.
While O’Connell is grieving for the 29 lost miners and remains outraged by the conduct of the mining firm at the center of his film, he’s encouraged not only by seeing Massey Energy getting the grilling they’ve long deserved, but also sees signs of progress on the environmental front. “EPA commissioner Lisa Jackson came out two weeks ago and announced enforcement of new, stricter groundwater rules,” reports O’Connell hopefully.
Also, nearly four years after he first trained his camcorder sights on the Marsh Fork school situation, progress may be afoot. On April 26, there will be a press conference in the office of West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin that, O’Connell believes, will announce state funding for the relocation of the elementary school — a victory signaling that 10 years of protests have paid off.