Tell me about where your interest started in mountaintop removal mining and following what's happening in Coal River Valley.
I was fertile ground for this story, because I began my work life 30 years ago starting a company designing air pollution control systems for power plants. I knew a bit about the pollution caused by burning coal.
And stories about ordinary people who circumstance compels to do extraordinary things, kind of inspiring stories about ordinary Americans, that's the kind of story that I find moving myself. This story of this extraordinary community on the top of Coal River Mountain who decide to take a stand and propose an energy future for all of us that would be brighter, healthier, more responsible and more job-creating — and they're doing it despite the tension and threats and stress they have to endure by suggesting a new way in an environment of people who are really deeply invested in the old way. Their story was really moving to me.
Then I basically heard Bobby Kennedy talk about a book I'd read, Crimes Against Nature, that he'd written, in which he linked with great effect the destruction of our democratic process that's required to enable the kind of environmental devastation that you see in our film. That sort of brought the threads together: a story of ordinary Americans who are fighting not just for our energy future and their community but are also fighting for our democracy.
What did you find when you went [to West Virginia], in terms of the difficulties this community is facing fighting against that old way of thinking?
The tension down there is palpable. All of the folks featured in our tale not only will find themselves arrested by the police or harassed, but describe a kind of environment of personal threats, where the very mining companies that come to Wall Street and say, "What we're going to do is use explosives and mechanization to get rid of all the workers." And thus, the number of jobs in West Virginia mining coal has gone from 150,000 to 15,000 in the last 50 years, even as production soars. But when they're down in West Virginia, while they point to the kinds of activists that you see in our movie, they say, "Those are the people who are stealing your jobs." And they say that to miners who understandably feel economically vulnerable in our treacherous times, and who live in communities that the explosives [used in the mining] have rendered poor ground for creating alternative employment, because who wants to move in and start a company in a place where there's the explosive power of Hiroshima being dropped every week.
As you point out in the film, it's a very oversimplified way of addressing this. What are people doing there to move beyond the [false dichotomy of], you're stealing our jobs versus you're destroying our homeplace?
Wow, you're into the rhythms of the language. Your homeplace — that's what they call it.
Ha. I'm from Kentucky. I've spent a lot of time in Eastern Kentucky reporting on coal issues.
Then it's natural for you. And of course it's the exact same thing. So they point out first the facts, and the facts are that both Kentucky and West Virginia have done studies, and the coal industry creates more economic destruction in the state than it creates economic benefit. That's just a fact. And they point out the fact that with federal subsidies and health consequences that have been added up now by a professor at Harvard named Paul Epstein, the total cost of the coal industry to the rest of us each year is more than $350 billion a year.
Most of all, what they do — and I think this is so extraordinary, and it's what makes this story so wonderful for me — these are folks who didn't just find out what they were against, they found out what they were for. And they've been willing to fight for it. They point out that they can provide better economic development for their community and long-term power to the United States by building wind farms on the mountain ridges that surround them instead of destroying them to get the coal inside. In that sense, they begin to point to an energy future that's much more compelling for all of us. They start teaching us things we didn't know. For example, did you know that there's more jobs in the wind industry today in America — despite all the subsidies for coal — than there are in coal mining? There are. Or did you know that last year, for the first time in American history, we built more renewable power than all the historic power sources combined? There was more wind, solar and geothermal constructed in America last year than natural gas, coal, oil and nuke combined.
They've begun asking a question that makes so much sense, which is: In a country that has long had such extraordinary capacity, how can the 21st century answer for our energy needs be the 17th century notion of burning rocks?
One of the problems that seems to come up over and over again is how you get people who are not living in the hollows of Appalachia to notice. I'm watching your film and thinking, Massey has 67,000 violations [of the Clean Water Act] in West Virginia and they ended up settling with the EPA for $20 million? How does that go unnoticed?
I think that basically it's a subversion of democratic process. It's been the ghettoization of Appalachia. I live in Boston, and several years ago I wanted to build an extension — I wanted to expand the footprint of my bathroom by six inches. I wanted to put a new window that was six inches wider. And because I was within 100 feet of a skunk cabbage that was itself within 50 feet of an intermittent stream the size of the palm of your hand, I needed 12 months of permitting, three erosion-control barriers, two soil-protection fences. That's in case some of the dirt 150 feet away from the stream might flow in the air near the stream.
So the notion that someone could fill in 2,500 miles of streams — could you see that happening in the Potomac? Or in the Sierras? Or how about the Hudson River, if somebody wanted to fill in the Hudson River? But somehow, these things have been allowed in Appalachia in some extraordinary way. They have the same federal laws I'm dealing with. I'm dealing with the Federal Rivers [and Harbors] Act when I'm in my backyard in Boston. The idea that if somebody wanted to take down 500 mountains in the Sierras, would the people of California tolerate that? Or in the Rockies? Or in the Adirondacks? How is this actually happening in Appalachia?
I think part of what has happened is it's the ghettoization. The industry pumps out this propaganda about clean-coal technology and coal is what keeps the lights on, and they sort of imply that if we don't burn coal, we can't have power — which we know isn't true. And they kind of imply that the people of Appalachia really love all this stuff — there's nothing they want more than some arsenic in their drinking water. So we're kind of allowed to think that there's a bunch of longstanding hillbilly mine families who just love drinking arsenic, and if we stop them, we would lose the ability to power our iPods.
One thing that continually comes up is that we have to have a diverse energy future, and coal needs to be part of it. I'd like you to address that first. And then, one of the things I've often encountered during my time in Eastern Kentucky covering this is that people will add a nuance to what they say: We're against mountaintop removal mining, we're not against coal mining in general. Is that what you're saying with this film, or are you saying something more broad about coal mining in general?
I think the first thing I'm saying is that I'm for a level playing field in a fair market economy that complies with the law. That means that if you're going to mine, you have to actually comply with the Clean Water Act — you can't dump stuff into the rivers. You've gotta comply with the Clean Air Act. You can't engage in practices like those you see in our film that leave miners' families devastated and miners dead because you violated safety standards repeatedly and with impunity. So you have to comply with the law, first.
Second, the genuine consequences of your economic action cannot be that you've privatized the gain and publicized the losses. It can't be that you bonus a few executives while you leave a poisonous bag of stew across the land for the rest of us. If the coal industry can be economic, if it complies with the law and internalizes the genuine cost it creates for the rest of us, I've got no problem with it at all.
I went to a debate where Bobby Kennedy debated Don Blankenship, the head of Massey Coal. And Bobby asked Don really point-blank: "Don, you've had 67,000 violations just of the Clean Water Act, just in the last five years. Is it possible for you to actually mien and comply with the law?" And Don said no. Dead straight, clear-on: No. I'm not a lawyer, but it sounds like it's by definition a self-perpetuating criminal activity.
Where do you go from there, though, if they're getting these breaks? I know the Obama administration had put a stop on new permits.
I think the Obama administration seems to be saying, "Look, the Clean Water Act applies to you, too." Which seems reasonable to me in a nation built on law. We have energy alternatives. We are the Saudi Arabia of wind; three states in America could power every house in the country and every factory in the country, even if we were all driving electric cars. We are in a place where in the desert southwest of the United States, there's enough sunshine that in one 75-by-75 square mile rectangle of what is almost entirely desolate land, you could build enough solar power to power the country.
America is a country of extraordinary ingenuity and technical capacity when it pulls together as a team. So do I think we can create an energy future that doesn't rely on destroying our landscapes and poisoning our children? Absolutely. In fact, it staggers me that somehow our country's gotten to a place where we don't think we can. I think that's because the industry has had a corrupt relationship with our policymakers.
I don't think that coal needs to be a part of the energy portfolio, but if it does, if it can comply with the law and meet the genuine strictures of the market, fantastic.
Your thoughts on "clean-coal technology"?
I think it's a farce. I say that as an inventor, I say that as a guy who's built companies in this space before. First of all, clean-coal technology doesn't deal with the mining — it doesn't even pretend to. So the destructive factors of mining: not dealt with. The destructive practices of washing the coal out of the mine, where you see these hundreds of billions of gallons of sludge pits spilling toxic metals all across Appalachia — doesn't pretend to deal with that. The fact that it takes 50 percent of the rail traffic in the United States to move coal around right now? Think of the size of that. That means that this country, which is the largest grain producer in the world, the largest timber-products producer in the world, the second-largest steel producer in the world, the second-largest purchaser of automobiles, heavy machinery, consumer goods — all of the stuff that we move around the country by rail, all adds up to coal. None of that is dealt with by clean-coal technology.
Clean-coal technology, which has never worked on anything remotely resembling the scale it would be needed to, but presently as designed would take 30 percent of the power generated by a power plant to actually run, so that means you've got to build 30 percent more power plants if we're mining more coal, transporting more coal. And it doesn't deal with a lot of the volatile heavy emissions that come out of it. It's not scalable, it's not economic, it hasn't been demonstrated, it doesn't deal with most of the destructive problems of burning coal. Other than that, it's wonderful! [Laughs]
It is a sop to coal-state senators in the hope that they will start to sign on to a slightly more responsible future.
I liked the civil disobedience angle in the film, and I wonder how you get your hooks into these politicians like [West Virginia Gov.] Joe Manchin, who are just shameless sellouts to this industry. Obviously this is a group of politicians and an industry that seem impervious to shame.
I think that civil disobedience is the cornerstone of being American. We have a country because ordinary Americans a long time ago engaged in an act of civil disobedience. That's what the folks who were rallying against King George were doing when they dumped the tea into the Boston Harbor. And we have a country because ordinary Americans ultimately stood up and fought in an honorable and straightforward way, and were willing to take the consequences — on the bridges in Lexington and Concord, on Selma, during the civil war movement, the abolitionists. All were willing to stand up.
What I love about civil disobedience as a last resort is that it's open, straightforward, and you take the consequences. It's the exact opposite of this notion that the industry likes to do, which is shroud their misbehavior behind a dark wall of political donations, Potemkin treelines and purchasing of misleading advertisements. So the fact that these people are coming from all over America by the hundreds — and some of them are octogenarians; there's 92-year-old people being arrested and taken out in chains from the governor's office in this movie — and college students, and AARP members, and former Marines, and waitresses, they're leading what in many ways is the biggest civil rights movement since the '60s. I personally think it's pretty inspiring that they're standing up for our democracy in a way that Americans always have — because they've always had to.
The show is coming back. End of story.
The old Nashville Banner column was "Why do the heathen rage" or something like that.
Google the George Strait 60 for 60 campaign. It worked.
Reading comprehension hasn't informed yours, Fool.
It makes me throw up a little in my mouth to see arrogant, prideful know-it-all…