Quantcast

Powerful New Film Captures Big Coal's Enduring Trauma

Energy

While recent headlines hastily declare the death of King Coal, a powerful new documentary based on seven years of investigation poignantly captures the complexities and largely overlooked stories of the enduring trauma of the coal industry on miners, their families, affected neighbors and the ravaged communities and Appalachian mountains they call home.

As one of the most timely, poetic and informed film documentaries released this year, Overburden: Two Women and the Mountain Between Them, chronicles a quintessential American journey—and the tragedy of lawlessness in the workplace and the environment—of two courageous women, formerly divided, who shed their fears and find common ground to begin the painful process of dealing with their grief, seeking terms of justice, and healing their damaged communities and mountains.

"We've all become family," Betty, a once fervent pro-coal supporter tells Lorelei, a coal miner's widow and vocal mountaintop removal mining organizer, in the film. "Don Blankenship has put us together," she adds, referring to the notorious former Massey Energy CEO. Recognizing the loss of Betty's brother in the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine disaster, as well as her own suffering, Lorelei responds: "Too high of a price to pay, though."

As featured in Overburden—a chilling mining term that refers to the overlying rock and soil displaced, like besieged residents and miners, to reach underground coal resources—these two former adversaries will stand together when Blankenship finally goes on trial on Oct. 1 in Charleston, West Virginia, for charges of conspiracy to violate mandatory federal mine safety and health standards relating to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, which took 29 lives.

To be sure, Lorelei and Betty will not only stand together in solidarity for mine safety and economic diversification.

"There's a desperate need for healing in the community," Lorelei says, in one of the most poignant moments in the film, as she packs up her belongings to move away.

Healing between families, communities, and the plundered mountains in central Appalachia—and in so many other strip-mined communities in southern Illinois, Wyoming and Montana, and on Northern Cheyenne, Crow, Navajo and other indigenous lands.

Embedded for years in West Virginia, Overburden director and University of North Carolina professor Chad Stevens is not only one of the most talented filmmakers of his generation, but one of its best storytellers, who has done the tedious and indefatigable work behind the scenes to gain the trust of bitterly divided and traumatized communities, and allow his characters to speak for themselves and recount the process of such healing unfolding today. Stevens brilliantly balances the beauty of families and the mountains, amid the tension of its conflicts and demise; his footage of a bear cub, aimlessly wandering to the edge of a massive strip mine, in search of its mother, is singular in its power.

There are a lot of important film documentaries on mountaintop removal mining—a strip mining process that has literally detonated untold millions of tons of explosives to blow up the tops of more than 500 mountains and shovel up the coal with machines over the past half century. In the tradition of the Oscar-winning film documentary Harlan County, Overburden Stevens effectively transcends the "war on coal" political banter by capturing the human stories behind the daily operations of one of our nation's most misunderstood, complicated and devastating sources of energy.

Photo credit: Chad Stevens, courtesy of Overburden film

The portrait of Lorelei dispels many of the stereotypes of so-called "tree huggers" working to hold the coal industry and its sycophantic politicians accountable to various water and mining regulations. The widow of a miner who died from black lung disease, with a son-in-law in the mines, Lorelei joins a young community organizer, Rory McIlmoil, in a Coal River Mountain campaign for wind energy in an effort to draw attention for more sustainable economic development in the region. When a mining company launches its strip mining operations on Coal River Mountain, Lorelei travels to Washington as a representative of the affected residents, appealing to the Obama administration's "power to intervene."

Taking the viewer on a rare glimpse into the pro-coal circles, Betty is a matter-of-fact narrator who declares "coal is life here," and proudly posts a "Friends of Coal" sign. When the violation-ridden Upper Big Branch mine explodes in 2010, taking her brother's life in the process, Betty comes to the realization that "Massey Energy murdered my brother."

Joining efforts with Lorelei in an effort to revoke Massey's corporate charter, Betty sums up the reality of both miners and all communities affected by reckless mining: "If we don't stand up and fight, who's going to?"

Years in the making, Overburden is ultimately an extraordinary story of transformation; of two brave women who recognize their fates no longer need to be divided by outside forces that have controlled the region for over a century through fear, deprivation and outright violence, and take action for a more viable future.

With Blankenship's historic indictment—the first coal baron to be brought to trial for conspiracy charges in decades—Overburden should be required viewing for President Obama, Congress and anyone who has ever depended on coal-fired electricity.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

Bill Nye Depressed by Tar Sands' 'Extraordinary Exploitation' of Environment

EPA Urged by Nearly 100,000 Americans to Redo Highly Controversial Fracking Study

Bill McKibben: The Turning Point Towards a Low-Carbon Future

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Record flood water levels in Venice hit again on Sunday making this the worst week of flooding in the city in over 50 years.

Read More Show Less

By Brian Barth

Late fall, after the last crops have been harvested, is a time to rest and reflect on the successes and challenges of the gardening year. But for those whose need to putter around in the garden doesn't end when cold weather comes, there's surely a few lingering chores. Get them done now and you'll be ahead of the game in spring.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
(L) Selma Three Stone Engagement Ring. (R) The Greener Diamond Farm Project. MiaDonna

By Bailey Hopp

If you had to choose a diamond for your engagement ring from below or above the ground, which would you pick … and why would you pick it? This is the main question consumers are facing when picking out their diamond engagement ring today. With a dramatic increase in demand for conflict-free lab-grown diamonds, the diamond industry is shifting right before our eyes.

Read More Show Less
(L) 3D graphical representation of a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle that is studded with glycoprotein tubercles.
(R) The measles virus pictured under a microscope. PHIL / CDC

The Pacific Island nation of Samoa declared a state of emergency this week, closed all of its schools and limited the number of public gatherings allowed after a measles outbreak has swept across the country of just 200,000 people, according to Reuters.

Read More Show Less
Austin Nuñez is Chairman of the Tohono O'odham Nation, which joined with the Hopi and Pascua Yaqui Tribes to fight a proposed open-pit copper mine on sacred sites in Arizona. Mamta Popat

By Alison Cagle

Rising above the Arizona desert, the Santa Rita Mountains cradle 10,000 years of Indigenous history. The Tohono O'odham Nation, Pascua Yaqui Tribe, and Hopi Tribe, among numerous other tribes, have worshipped, foraged, hunted and laid their ancestors to rest in the mountains for generations.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
The Navajo Nation has suffered from limited freshwater resources as a result of climate, insufficient infrastructure, and contamination. They collaborated with NASA to develop the Drought Severity Evaluation Tool. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Native Americans are disproportionately without access to clean water, according to a new report, "Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan," to be released this afternoon, which shows that more than two million Americans do not have access to access to running water, indoor plumbing or wastewater services.

Read More Show Less
Wild Exmoor ponies graze on a meadow in the Czech Republic. rapier / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Nanticha Ocharoenchai

In the Czech Republic, horses have become the knights in shining armor. A study published in the Journal for Nature Conservation suggests that returning feral horses to grasslands in Podyjí National Park could help boost the numbers of several threatened butterfly species.

Read More Show Less

Despite huge strides in improving the lives of children since 1989, many of the world's poorest are being left behind, the United Nations children's fund UNICEF warned Monday.

Read More Show Less