Bill Haney’s activist “The Last Mountain” reveals the Coal Industry’s wholesale destruction of the Appalachian Mountain range while detailing local citizen outrage. Mountaintop removal has destroyed 500 Appalachian Mountains, 1 million acres of forest, and buried 2000 miles of streams.
Focusing on the small mountain top community of Coal Mountain, whose school sits below a highly toxic coal sludge empoundment, and whose valley is regularly flooded with slurry. There have been six brain tumor deaths in the tiny community over several years, all a result of silicosis. Even progressive democrats like Governor (now Senator? Congressman) Joe Manchin, is a “friend of coal.” A few word changes in the Clean Water Act, masterminded by Dick Chaney and accomplished out of public view, enabled Massey Energy to destroy the mountaintops of the fertile Appalachians for profit, leaving behind a horrific lunarscape that will no longer sustain an ecosystem. The tough activists continue to stand up against state wide corruption (enabled by Bush Era deregulations.) EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, named one of Newsweek’s “Most Important People in 2010,” and in Time Magazine’s 2010 and 2011 lists of the “100 Most Influential People in the World”, emerges as a heroine.
Haney (“The Price Of Sugar”) interviews locals who’ve become committed activists, as well as young environmental radicals, galvanized by Kennedy’s involvement, who put their bodies on the line to try to halt the mountain top mining that’s already removed many mountain tops of the historic Appalachian Mountains. Revealing shots of the once lush forest show an unconscionable swath of destruction. The historic mountain range, described by Robert Kennedy Jr. as the original seed forest of all American forests, is fast becoming a memory. Kennedy, in the roundtable interview that follows, describes the Fight for the Mountaintops as “this generation’s Selma.”
West Virginia, and indeed the region, has been treated with the disregard for life that has haunted colonial political systems for generations. Haney’s film reveals how easy it is for industry to poison citizens, disenfranchise and decimate communities and destroy unions in their lethal economic feeding frenzy. Environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy JR. joins the fight. His verbal smack down of President of the West Virginia Coal Association, Bill Raney is memorable. Haney devotes the last section to the alternative of wind turbines.
What follows is a press roundtable discussion with Bill Haney then Robert Kennedy JR., followed by an interview with Bill Haney.
Robin Menken: One of the great things about your documentaries, you did this in “The Price of Sugar” and you have done it again here, is that you humanize the story. While you throw a lot of statistics and facts out, you make individuals the centerpiece. How did you go about designing this particular documentary and selecting the people that you involved?
Bill Haney: I try to make movies that move me in the same way that they would move an audience. I find stories of ordinary people, who are pressed by their circumstances to find things in their character that are extraordinary. I find those kinds of people really compelling and inspiring. The people, at the center of this story, are inspiring in the some of the same ways I found the people in “The Price Of Sugar.”
This is a complicated tale, at least the way I try to tell it, because the fight for Coal River Mountain is both an important story for me and a metaphor for the fight for our energy future and the struggle to use citizen democracy. It’s the linkage between citizen democracy and people like us, people who are journalists. That link is the bulwark against the corrupting relationship of corporate America and the politicians who they fund. We see the struggles of that. Maybe some of you have experienced that struggle as journalists. The folks down there saw it too.
This is more than a tale happening to these people far, far away. It’s also about our role, because we’re making decisions and our decisions are effecting this. Every time we click on our iPod, or switch on a light, In America 50% of the energy comes from coal. To be disconnected from those consequences, not willfully, but because we’re all busy. Most of us have our own jobs and families and it is hard to keep up with stuff; but to not understand the linkage makes us, in a curious way, complicities in something that probably none of us would accept. In some ways I’m trying to find a way to tell all of that, and to do that in a way that cuts out the chaff that the fossil fuel industry just pours through the television at people; telling you there’s a “green, cleaner coal”, just to say it… try to picture it. But, if they just say it long enough, you start to lose touch with reality.
Q- How do you decide what stories to tell?
BH: Filmmaking is a part of my work life. I also run hi-tech companies and I run a charity. I have made 14 movies, half narrative and half documentaries. Sometimes I do something that’s fun. I wrote a noir thriller set in world of art forgery in Venice. Sometimes I do things that my kids can work on and enjoy. I wrote a script and we shot a film about the children’s crusade (what Martin Luther King called the beginning of the world’s non- violent movement) about a young boy in Germany who thought that if he walked from Northern Germany to the gates of Jerusalem and prayed, Jerusalem would be at peace, and if Jerusalem was at peace, the world would be at peace. So he began to walk. This is a true story, in the year 1212, and by the time he gets to the shores of Italy there were 50,000 kids walking with him.
I wrote an adventure story about that, because I felt that it would be inspiring and that my kids would enjoy talking part. But mostly I have this view that there are a lot of movies that I enjoy watching for three hours, but for something to be worth working on for three years, I have to feel that it means something to me. It feels like issues and inspiration and justice seem to be the things that matter to me, so I keep doing those.
Q- So why this one?
BH- I began my work life, as a freshman in college in 1980, designing air pollution control systems for power plants. I invented a system for reducing what’s called NOx emissions for power plants, which are a precursor of acid rain in ground level ozone, what you guys see as smog here. I spent the years from 18 to 24 putting that up all over the world in power plants. I would climb these big power plants to install these systems and this gave me exposure to the extraordinary environmental footprint of fossil fuel plants in general, and coal in particular. In the years that have followed, I’ve taught Environmental policy at Harvard. I’ve done stuff at the EPA and lots of Environmental things and I have long wondered what is the single most pernicious attack on global environment and public health, and it always comes back to coal. So let’s say that is a recurring theme.
Bobby Kennedy wrote a book called “Crimes Against Nature” and he shows in that book, in a very powerful way, how an attack on our environment has effectively been an attack on our democracy; that in order to get away with the things that are the most egregiously profitable and destructive you really have to subordinate the public’s will. So, for example, In West Virginia, which is the heart of coal country, with long generations of intergenerational family commitment with deep patriotic linkages, in West Virginia, two-thirds of the people in the public polls are against mountain top mining. So how come every politician’s for it? I mean we are a democracy, after all, right? So Bobby, chapter and verse, hammer and tong, asks these questions.
That began to awaken a perspective in me that I had been thinking about. In a sense, in the same way that the banks privatize the gain and publicize the losses (note: as we have seen in the recent bailouts) so too are the coal industry giants doing.
There is another threat, my friend Claire Bingham (one of our producers who is a pretty famous investigative journalist) began doing a series of stories on the corruption of the safety standards and other kind of mine behavior questions; where they are actually allowed to pump stuff into the ground water supply; where are they allowed to actually shut off the methane emissions standards and what are they doing when they are caught violating? The more immediate personal and familial health consequences and safety consequences, became apparent.
I started to look for a story that would crystallize these themes, and the people in Coal River Mountain were that. They were unusually courageous and unusually effective, and probably most important of all, because I am not a big fan of films that demonstrate another problem: you have to show the problem and propose a solution. It doesn’t have to be a perfect solution. Other people can debate the solution. That’s not interesting to me.
This community decided they had to know not just what they were against, but what they were for, and then they had to take action. Of course, to take action if you are a waitress, or a former marine or ex-coal miner in West Virginia, takes an awful lot of courage.
Vaclav Havel, when were debating Nato enlargement, wrote an article on foreign affairs that really struck me at the time. He said that. “Your values aren’t things that you talk about. Your values are things you’re willing to make sacrifices for.” What will you give something up for?
These folks were giving something up. They were giving something up every day and those kinds of characters are what draw me. I admire them. I respect them. They are inspiring to me, and my guess is that even if there is some other issue the audience is thinking about, that’s more powerful than coal mining in West Virginia, they’ll take sustenance from the example of these extraordinary people.
Q- Do you stay in touch with the people in your documentaries?
BH: Largely yes. It’s and interesting thing, because you become very intimate in a way with one another and their lives go on. Depending on who they are, they may want you to be there documenting it. But for a storyteller, particularly within the architecture of film,
the story has to come to a conclusion; but their story isn’t coming to a conclusion. They are interested in, or maybe you’re interested in, the ongoing nature of it, so there’s a tradeoff.
There’s also a tradeoff on issues, if you make a human rights film like the previous one I made. Or I made a film in between “The PrIce Of Sugar and this one. It’s a civil rights film, called “American Violet”. It’s a film ultimately about Democracy, too, but it’s a It’s a civil rights film, and the organizing groups started to use the film as an organizing tool and then if you’re willing to speak out and take steps, they ask me, “will you run the group?” So, you have to find some equipoise between those things and I do my best. I’m not sure I get it right, but I do my best.
RM: Bill, It’s really hard to do your best now, because America’s in its Banana Republic phase, replicating the colonial policies we once exported to the Third World. Every thing’s been hijacked since the Bush years The regulating boards are overseen by the industries they are supposed to regulate, and people just bold face lie. They don’t even act like they know that they’re lying. Every thing’s manufactured, spun. You can pretty much say that anything you hear stated publicly is the opposite of what they say. Any quote from any company, politician, anyone in public office… the circle of corruption is extreme. And there’s no investigative journalism minding the store.
You have moments in the film with these guys, like Raney (Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association.) They hang themselves and they’re not even aware of, because the truth doesn’t matter anymore, it’s completely malleable, so it’s really hard to know where to put your camera to illustrate these infinite variations of lies we’re being faced with.
BH: I would say, that for me, the most egregious sin of the Bush administration was the attack on the Renaissance. They basically attacked the Renaissance idea that first you gather the facts, then you reflect on them, and then you form the opinion. They started with an opinion, scoured the universe for a few facts to stitch into it and told us that that was the same thing. I think that, in a way, that undermines our ability to think together. However, I also think the public is much smarter than that. I try to not do that. There’s a trend in documentary filmmaking that’s basically polemical. You know, you start with a conclusion and you go looking for facts to fit it. It can be highly entertaining. The facts. I can feel very strongly about the facts, so I can be a really good filmmaker about those facts, but that doesn’t have the same relationship with the truth that I, personally, am interested in.
So it’s finding a balance between being moved enough to be committed to something, and being respectful enough to the audience to try to just share the information; kind of take whatever journey you take and let the audience take the journey with you, and let them decide what they think. Often the conclusions will be more progressive than the present policy would suggest, because the conclusions an audience will reach will not be subverted by a misuse of facts.
So I won’t tell you there’s such a thing as “clean coal” technology, or you’ve heard about the “greenhouse capture” we’re going to have? Except nobody tells you, it takes a third of the power generated by a power plant (that means 30% more power plants) to capture the stuff; and there’s not a single working system, anywhere in the world, of any scale, and it only arguably captures CO 2 and leaves all those volatile metals that go up into the atmosphere.
They tell you little pieces of the truth, so you will have to draw your own conclusions. One of the things that I like to do-, I believe in test screening because I believe the role of the director is to find a bridge between the material being covered and the audience, not to shout his or her truth. So, I did a screening with mostly Republicans and I asked people, “Do you find the film partisan? And actually to my utter delight (and astonishment) they felt the film was totally fair minded. I had one person, of about 80, who felt the film was the work of a passionate Democrat, which of course I am.
Because the roots of conservatism, the genuine roots, are in conserving. We don’t see a whole lot of that anymore, but the old debate of small government, protect nature, keep the troops at home, keep budgets small and the government’s out of your life; that’s a reasonable debate; at least in my mind. Between bigger government, higher taxes, more public services, that (conservative values) somehow gotten manipulated. There’s nothing conservative about destroying the Appalachian Mountains for eight years of coal. And I think a lot of people, whose political views come off different from mine, would agree with that.
Q- Was there anything you learned while filming this that you just couldn’t believe?
BH: Even though I have been connected to and thinking about these issues for a long time, I don’t think I grasped the scale of it. It’s almost unimaginable, like for example, Coal transport makes up 50% of the rail traffic in the country. Look, we’re the largest grain producer in the world. We’re the largest timber producer in the world. We’re the second largest steel producer in the world. Think of all the railroad cars transported all those goods through the heartland of America, With all of them combined, they only make up half of the railroad business, the other half is coal. (Note: the railroads lobby for the coal industry)
For the political dimensions, so we had to put two researchers on for two years to find little pieces all over the country. I don’t think I grasped it exactly. If you said to me, “Do the coal guys get money?” I’d have said yes, and who I was thinking about was the miners!
That the rail guys make four times that from coal and the utility guys four times more than the railroads, that surprised me.
The quantities of materials that go through a coal plant contribute toxic consequences. The average coal fire power plant is 100 times more radioactive, if you’re standing 100 feet away from it, than the average nuclear power plant, because, although there’s only trace radioactivity in the coal, there’s so much of it going through. Or the settling ponds. 133 ponds are leaking.
Here’s an interesting story. The EPA was forbidden by the Bush administration to actually even ask how many of these settling ponds there were and where they were. So, until December 2009, there was no information of any kind about where these things (which now we know contain 150 gallons of toxic metal sludge) were. Then one burned. It broke. In Tennessee, in December, one broke. A fifty six foot high tidal wave of toxic metal sludge poured through three giant rivers. They’ve already spent more than a million dollars to trying to clean it up.
The House of Representatives, which at time at the was Democrat, started an investigation. They demanded that the EPA at least found out where these things were. They discovered that there’s 600 of them. That they contain 150 gallons of stuff. That they’re all on big drinking water supplies, because basically when you move coal down the river to the power plants (which use water for coolant), they are next to water supplies.
At this stage they found out that they were so dangerous that the Department Of Homeland Security put a court order on the EPA, to say they couldn’t tell us where 57 of them were, because they were terrorist threats. So, 12 months before, they were so uninteresting we didn’t need to know where they were. Now, they’re so toxic and dangerous that they’re terrorist threats, and they have to be hidden from us.
The scale of this stuff, if you look at the dams in this hemisphere, from Northern Canada to the tip of Terra Del Fuego, the three biggest dams
Stoppa Falls, the Hoover Dam and Brushy Forks in West Virginia. Brushy Forks has 9.8 billion gallons of stuff, and they basically made it by pushing dirt into a valley and dumping the stuff into it. There’s no concrete, no steel, no rebarb, no defense systems, no nothing. It’s just a big pile of dirt. The scale surprised me. just how ungodly big it is.
Q. One of the things the film talks about is how the Bush administration changed the wording in EPA regulations, in a way that was seemingly innocuous. (Enacting subtle changes in documents which allowed Bush cronies to ride roughshod over regulations.)
BH: On first read it doesn’t seem to be all that important. A grammatical thing, like in school when a teacher hands back your report and says “I suggest this.” What kind of impact has that had? Why hasn’t the Obama administration gone in and changed that? It sounds like it was just “administrative” and doesn’t require congressional oversight. One of the gifts that Dick Cheney gave America was: he’d been in government so long that he knew that you don’t have to have a big public debate about a new law, it’s too hard. You don’t have to run a new senator, to stands up and say,” I’m gonna do this, not that,” because then the public pays attention. just a little word change.
By the way, I’m documenting one place in one document, a word change over one element in the EPA. It’s happening across the boards, all over everything. This is where our civil rights got eroded. This is where wire tapping and domestic wiretapping became legal, where the banks decided to change the standards on home loans, interrogation standards- word by word. Just a couple words here, a couple words there, all kind of buried from public sight, so there is an endless sea of this stuff. particularly in the case of the fill law ( overseeing dredging or filling waterways, these laws are supposed to “public navigation, fishery and recreational uses of the waters.”) It’s consequences were extraordinary in terms of mountain top mining. But also, all across the country. This notion wasn’t just used for coal. When you read about people who are doing gold mining and using arsenic (poisoning the waters in Alaska). Gold, silver and copper mining in Yellowstone National Park. Everyplace, now, you can basically dump anything you want in the water as long as it has a consequence of creating a dry spot. Well, everything has the consequence of creating a dry spot, every giant mining system.
At one time in my life I built the world’s largest recycling plant. At the time there were 13 billion tons of waste created in the United States and 12 billion of it was created by the mining industry. All of that is now allowed to be dumped in water. It wasn’t before the Fill Law.
In terms of the Obama administration changing it back, I think that a couple of things have happened. The first is that the Obama administration has a Republican house right now. The Obama administration wasn’t focussed on environmental stuff very hard at the beginning and it has 12 full State Senators, not all Democrats but mostly Democrats, who were focussed pretty hard on it, so when they were trying to pass healthcare reform, which was the signature issue of the administration, Obama needed coal state Democrats like Senator Jay Rockefeller or Senator Manchin of West Virginia, on healthcare reform, which was passed basically by zero.
The administration would have had to prioritize and frankly begin to behave in that slightly sneaky way that the Bush administration was so comfortable in. They were thinking ideologically, “just because they were lying and cheating does that mean that we’re supposed to lie and cheat back?” because the way that these fill laws were changed wasn’t really appropriate? Problem 1-Is this really a priority with us, if we have coal state senators saying if you screw with the coal industry, we won’t sign the Health Care Reform Bill. What do they do? So they’ve left the EPA on its own to fight it out.
And Lisa Jackson is an unbelievably heroic figure, taking it on the chin all day every day. With the public’s support, she has stopped mountain top mining in 90 sites. She has turned back permits that already existed. She has shut down mines that were contaminating fresh water supplies. She, by herself, has done more to clean up the mining industry than the whole country has done in the previous 50 years. She is unbelievable, but she has not got the benefit of the change of the Fill Law, and she’s under attack in Congress and her support in this administration is passionate but limited.
Q- I read that there were three different options, all toothless, and that the Administration came up with a sort of compromise?
BH:They’re big friends of self-regulation. You know how that works. the banks just did self regulation.
Q- And it worked for them. They got cashed up again. So Lisa Jackson’s not allowed to change it on her own?
BH: She’s not in a position to change that rule on her own.
Q- And the administration just can’t sign a paper?
BH: Sadly correct. There’s supposed to be a process where these changes happen. That process was broken under the Bush administration. The Obama Administration is trying to actually respect it. Problem number 1: the Fill Law change is complicated -in part it involves the Department Of The Interior, and therefore the Army Corps of Engineers; so now you’ve got bunch of people who have to be involved
Q. How significant is it that the West Virginia legislature announced on May 3rd, that they were going to audit the EPA within West Virginia? Do you think this is a lame duck move or will this prove beneficial in some respect?
BH: I don’t know yet. It’s all about the intention and about what genuine consequences take place as a result. It’s better than leaving them alone. I think that the tide against mountaintop mining’s free ride is turning.
We’ll do a series of screenings down there around the Blair Mountain March. Had Senator Byrd not died-even Senator Byrd had written letters in the last six months of his life, as the son of a coal miner, really changing his position and attacking the mountain top removal process.
This is a place where my personal views and the views of some of the activists in West Virginias diverge a little bit. Because I don’t think the answer is only to stop mountain top mining and I don’t think that the only place we should build a wind farm is on top of Coal River Mountain. People’s views on the issues can change. I think that the US should get out of all of this stuff completely. I think we can do it. I think that America’s can-do optimistic spirit has been eroded by a group of fear-mongering Republicans who want to divide us from ourselves. We’ve been able to do all kinds of extraordinary things. There’s no reason we can’t be off all coal and all fossil fuels in a relatively short time. And not only do I think that, but Scientific American, a moderately conservative science-based publication, says by 2020 we can be out of all fossil fuels in this country.
A much more effective use America’s capitol is to spend to build a new power grid and put up renewable energy, rather than spend four or five times that amount of money shooting at kids and having kids shoot at our kids in the Middle East, to get stuff we know is polluting us. And by the way, destroying our economy. When you read about our trade imbalance, you hear China, China, China. We’ve got a 60 billion dollar trade imbalance with China. Well, we have a 120 billon dollar trade imbalance in oil.
Q- Who do you think is the leadership working towards renewable energy?
BH: That’s a good question. It depends on what we mean by renewable energy, there are figures in corporate America whose bread is buttered by building wind farms or solar plants and other things, and those people can be passionate advocates for their industry or for their companies. There are political leaders, Rep. Jim McDermott from the state of Washington and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island, who are passionate advocates for a green economy. But the power of these industries, and the roots of them, are so deep, that until the administration turns its attention to this as a source of renewing the American economy…
Q- A policy of regulations?
BH: Yes. I personally think that the Obama Administration made a terrible mistake focussing on climate change with Cap and Trade rules as opposed to building a green economy. The environmental consequences would have been the same but the inspirational nature would have been wildly different. If somebody said, we’re going to rebuild the American economy, with three million new jobs. We’re going to do by spending less on imported oil that we spend every year, and when we’re done doing it over the next ten years, we won’t need any oil from the Middle East and we won’t need any coal, and that’ll save 25 million asthma attacks a year from oil and coal, and all kinds of public heath consequences and give us the lowest cost basis for manufacturing electricity-based material in the world, I think the public would have signed on a lot quicker for that than signing on to an international regime of trade, or to letting the United Nations set prices in trade carbon. It just doesn’t have any inspirational quality. So I think we are ultimately going to need a president who says “I have a five point plan, that says something interesting in it” and, much as I am a Democrat, I don’t think that Barack Obama has yet done that.
Q- Cap and Trade maintains the status quo anyway. It lets corporations pay to pollute.
BH: Right. As you know, the notion of it, which was explored most effectively in the CFC protocols in Montreal, can work by slowly adjusting the price so it gets more and mores expensive to pollute. You reduce the amount of pollution credits that are available, You take some out and you increase the price and people will get more and more incentives to reduce pollution. But you actually have to have the political will to stick with it
and that’s a difficult thing in America because our political system is up for purchase.
Q- As the film illustrates, with the tens of thousands of violations that the industry manages to get away with, it seems that in this country, instead of making corporations accomodate the law, we make the law accomodate the corporation.
BH: I think that’s right.
RM: And It’s only going to get worse because of The Citizen United Act which gives corporations unlimited access to financially support candidates and to buy elections.
BH: It is going to get worse. It’s about leadership too. Somebody’s got to be willing to take their lumps. They can indeed enforce the law,s but they’ve got to be willing to take their lumps. Barack Obama can come out and say, “These guys are trying to steal our country and I want to take it back”, but he’s going to get an onslaught of negative criticism and might even lose his reelection campaign. So what! I mean, he’s still going to get breakfast. His kids are still going to go to school. He could accept that. There will have to be people who are willing to stand up for this stuff if we want to change it.
Q. One of the areas where the law should be working is a system of checks and balances between the EPA and the Army Corps Of Engineers. You can’t get a permit for your mountaintop removal without getting your permit for your ponds and your dumping, but somewhere along the line we’ve lost our checks and balances.
BH: The Army Corps of Engineers was utterly unsuited by psychology, by structure, by intention or by human resource design, to have responsibility in this instance. They were configured to-you’re going to build a dock and put a submarine on it, and therefore you need to have the right to put a fill in to do something industrial and constructive and important to the nation. Or, you’re going to build a levee. You are going to put something in the Mississippi River because it’s designed to protect the community down river, and the Army Corps of Engineers is gong to oversee it from a national environmental and engineering standard. This wasn’t about any of that. The intention, in none of these cases, was to do something constructive or industrial. It was to dump a pile of crap. And the Army Core of engineers had five or six people nationwide to support this stuff and it was guys out of the Army. They weren’t in the position of balancing the public will, environmental science, public safety and economic development. That’s the last thing on these guys minds. These guys were organized to build stuff to fight people who were against us or who we thought were against us. So shifting the responsibility to them would be like shifting responsibility to your four-year-old and saying, “You have a choice, get it right, you get ice cream. You don’t get it right, you don’t get ice cream.” They’re like a little kid. What are they gonna do?
Q-I think you touched on something at the end of the film. You talked about when the system becomes so broken, when the law and democracy no longer work, civil disobedience becomes a viable option. Do you think it will take people doing that to make Obama make the right choice?
BH: I don’t know. I think that Obama, as any leading politician of either party does, wants people from the whatever flank he’s not on (in this case on the left) to challenge him so he can look like a moderate. by doing what many consider would be a progressive thing. Presidents are rarely in the lead anymore. I was on the Democratic National Committee for eight years, under the Clinton administration, and I think he really was on the lead in the attempt to bomb Serbia to get out of Bosnia- Herzogovina. That’s the only issue I can think where he really said, “I think this is the right thing to do. Nobody in America really understands what I’m doing or why I’m doing it. The Democrats aren’t even in favor of it. The Republicans aren’t in favor of it. I’m doing it anyway.” This doesn’t happen. They’re poll testing, triangulating, all this kind of crap. So civil disobedience, or at least civil action, is required, and that’s OK because it’s our country. We got all the federal EPA: the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, parts of The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act because people demonstrated on Earth Day. 10% of the population in the country demonstrated on Earth Day! I can guarantee you that if 31 million Americans stand up and say,”We want a different energy future in this country”, we’ll get it. But if we all kind of muse quietly in our rooms, thinking, “Boy, oh boy, wouldn’t it be great if it got better”, then we won’t.
Q-At the moment we’re just encouraged to turn our lights out, which is absolutely useless because it internalizes the problem. No-ones worried about someone sitting in the dark in their living room.
BH. That’s what made me like this community of Coal River Mountain so much. And it’s not true that, that’s all you do. You have your professional life, like I have mine, and we can do things in our professional life that spread the word we believe in. So when you look at the people who gathered at Coal River Mountain; the kids who came from all over the country. They strapped themselves to drive-ons. And let’s be clear. the Earth Day Movement was lead by people mostly younger than me.
We didn’t show all this in the film. There are 80 year olds who are taking hunger strikes at the Capitol building in West Virginia. There’s a waitress leading the protests. There’s a 90 year old grandmother getting arrested. It is ordinary Americans who are doing it and in fairness to them, much as I like them, if it had all been taking place in LA, coamost of them wouldn’t have been doing it. So I think there are ordinary Americans standing up. In some ways, this fight over Coal River Mountain is the Selma of our generation, and it’s just beginning. Initially there weren’t that many people fighting for civil rights either. But it did slowly begin to grow, and that’s happening in this country.
Q- When you look at coal mining in other parts of the country, the Powder River Basin (Wyoming and Montana), there isn’t a core population there that’s going to rise up and demand that Powder River Basin be shut down. So when you talk about LA , how do you translate this? How do you generate civic action, civic involvement where there isn’t a population or where the population is somewhat distant from the problem?
BH: Let’s take slavery. A lot of the powerfully committed abolitionists did not own slaves and did not live in slave holding states. A lot of abolitionists came from New England and upstate New York. They felt on religious grounds and personal principle that this was deeply wrong. One of the things that made the American Revolution so extraordinary is that it’s fairly common for revolutions to be led by the hopeless, but the American Revolution was lead by the rich and powerful. Thomas Jefferson was the richest guy in the state. George Washington was the biggest landowner in the country and he didn’t have any kids. So he’s a fifty year old guy in the days when the average life expectancy was fifty. The richest guy in the country with no children. He decides to take on the world’s super power by horseback, in winter. Cause he thought it was the right thing to do. He though about the consequence, and the people who supported him thought he was the right person to follow. So I think what has to happen is what has often had to happen. The question, in part, is how do we want our economy to work? You can see this with big factory farms. We’ve wiped out the family farm in America by giving hugh subsidies to giant factory farms, because they dont have to meet safety or environmental standards, or any other standards, and as a result there are million people who used to work on farms who don’t and the quality of the food’s gone down. The pollution’s gone up. We’ve enriched a small amount of executives who take enormous bonuses and then try to manipulate the Capitol Gain taxes, so they don’t have to pay much. So slowly, and this is where Obama or a good leader could come and say,”This is is my five part plan to rebuild the economy and to do it in a principled way. And I need your help.” I think he’d find a lot of Americans willing, or she’d find.. I think maybe it’s time for a she…
Q- If it’s a she, do you have a choice of who she might be?
BH-I’m going to leave that to you guys to figure out. Nice to be with you. Thank you
Part 2- Robert Kennedy Jr. roundtable discussion.
Q. So what is it that touched you as a child, that sent you on an environmental path?
Robert Kennedy Jr.: Well I was interested in the environment from when I was a little kid. I was raised in the country and my mother says that I was interested in it from when I was born. When I was eight years old, I wrote my uncle, who was then in the White House, and there was pollution on K-street in Washington D.C. because there was a number of cement factories there. To me, the pollution seemed like a theft; that somebody people could steal the air from their neighbors and pollute it and make people sick, seemed like a theft to me. So I wrote my uncle a letter saying I wanted to meet with him about pollution, and that I was going to write a book about it. And he wrote me and asked me to the Oval Office. So I had a meeting with him in the Oval Office about that. I went in my shorty shorts. I brought the salamander that I had caught the night before in a vase and I think I had killed the salamander with chlorine from the tap water. It was a big spotted salamander, so a lot of the meeting was his observations that “the salamander didn’t look well.” And we went and released it in the Rose Garden fountain. It was a striking inanimation.
I didn’t really get around to writing the book until I was twenty nine years old. He set up interviews with Stuart Udall, who was Secretary of the Interior, and a number of the other Environmental ministers. At that time he was involved in a battle to defend a case-Rachel Carson against his own USDA. The medical community, and everybody else, was trying to dismiss her as a quack, and she was very quiet and would not defend herself because she was dying of cancer, but I’m very proud that he went to bat for her and stood up for her.
Then I started kayaking and training hawks when I was very young. I started training pigeons when I was seven, and raising them and then training hawks when I was nine and I still do that today. I wrote the exam that people use to become falconers in this country.
In my private life I run a wildlife reabilitation center in my house and I have a kayaking company, a white water company that I’ve had for fifteen years. So it’s been part of my private life. Also, more importantly, I have always seen pollution as an act of theft, as stealing of the commons or the public trust assets. That the constitution of every state, including the state of California, says that the commons belong to the people. The fish, the waterways, those are assets that are not susceptable to private property ownership, but, by their nature, are property of the entire community: the air, the water, the wildlife, the fisheries, the wandering animals, the beaches, the shore lands, the wetlands; that these things belong to the people, Whether you are rich or poor, humble or noble, black or white, young or old; you have an absolute right to go down to the waterway and take out the fish. You have a right to go surfing without coming out with an ear infection. And those rights are being stolen from the people of the State. They’re being stolen by powerful political entities, within the State, who break the law and violate the law in order to privatize public trust assets.
I have three children with asthma. They get sick on bad air days when there’s ozone particulettes in the atmosphere and somebody is literally making money by prioritizing the air in their lungs. This is ancient law, by the way. It goes back to Roman times. It’s in the Code of Justinian and it’s in the Magna Carta. One of the first acts of tyranny always includes the activities, by powerful entities within a society, to privatize the public trust resources. You see that in our country. I’ll just give you a little history lesson. In 375 AD, the Code of Justinian had these enumerated protections for public trust resources. If you were a citizen of Rome, no matter what color you were, if you were African or European, you had an absolute right to take a net, walk across to the beach, throw the net in the water and take out your share of the fish. The Emperor himself couldn’t stop you. That was the public trust doctrine. And, in 375 AD, Christian fundamentalists who were anti-enlightenment, whose number one source of knowledge was the bible, burned all of classical literature and classical learning in the library of Alexandria. That event was the beginning of the Dark Ages, plunging Europe into 800 years of Feudal Oligarchy.
And at that time when the Roman law disappeared, all the local lords and Feudal Kings began reasserting control over public trust resources. For example, in England, King John said that the deer no longer belonged to the poor. Deer were an important food source and game animals no longer belonged to the poor, nor the ability to hunt them That’s what got him in trouble with Robin Hood. For them that was a critical right of their democracy. He also erected navigation tolls in the Thames and the other rivers of England. What was once free to all of the people, now wealthy people controlled the access to the rivers. He sold monopolies to the fisheries. So the last thing that a very poor person could eat…you could always go out and catch a fish… now you had to pay a wealthy people for the right to do that. That attack on the commons caused the public to revolt. They rose up and confronted hi at the battle of Runnymede they forced him to sign the Magna Carta, which was the first act of constitutional democracy in the history of mankind.
And if you read the Magna Carta, it has rights, like Habeas Corpus, which we no longer have in this country. It also has enumerated rights about the commons. It protects the air, the water, the wildlife, the fisheries, the public lands on behalf of the public. In fact, in the 1600’s, in England, there was a clean air act. It was illegal to burn coal in stoves in London. People who did were actually executed for the offense.
On Earth Day in 1970, 20,000,000 people came out onto the street, inspired by Rachel Carson’s book. 10% of the population of our country, the largest public demonstration in American hIstory, demanding our political leaders return to the American people the ancient environmental rights that had been stolen from our citizens over the previous eighty years since the Industrial Revolution. And over the next 10 years, a frightened political establishment, Republicans and Democrats, created EPA. Nixon made the EPA, signed the Clean Water Act, signed the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act and 28 other environmental laws, but really it was just a ressurrection of these ancient laws. It was a restoration of the public trust doctrine and the doctrine of the commons that had always existed.
So it wasn’t a bunch of hippies in tie-dye tee shirts making up a new set of laws. They were just reenacting old laws that had always been there, and those are the laws that we operate with today. They are ancient laws. They are part of Western history. They are central values of government and democracy; that the core responsiblity of a government is to protect the commons on behalf of all the people.
RM: Can you talk about the global move to privatize water, and the successful battle against water privatization in Bolivia.
RKJ: The big battle is in Cochabamba in Bolivia. I think Bechtel originally tried to privatize the water. It’s going to be a growing issue across our country. The issues that come up with coal, with all the issues you see come up when you see a large scale environmental injury, you’ll also see the destruction of democracy. You’ll see the disappearance of public participation at the local level. So the public can no longer participate in decisions about how their public trust resources are allocated. Air, water, wildlife, fisheries, public lands are allocated. You’ll see the disappearance of transparency. Things are done in secret. You will see a capture of the agencies that are supposed to protect Americans from pollution. They become sock puppets for the industries they’re supposed to regulate.
There is a scene in the movie where a small group of local activists try to put on a protest in front the DEP. Well, if you look very carefully, they are put off in a distant corner of the parking lot, and they are surrounded by all kinds of barriers that are erected by the police to stop them from getting anywhere near to the office they are boycotting. Them you have a line of police around them to make sure nobody crosses that barrier, and then, behind the police, you have several thousand miners, private miners who have been invited in by Massey Coal to give that final concentric ring of protection around the agency. And it says a lot about the agency, because its saying that the real alliance with the agency is the coal industry, and that the enemy are environmentalists who want to clean up the coal industry, and that government is on the the Coal Industry’s side.
That’s the classic destruction of the environment. When there’s a coalition between government and corporate power. It’s the classic combination that every visionary leader in America’s history has warned us about.
Franklin Roosevelt, who was a Republican, said that America would never be destroyed by a foreign enemy, but he warned that our beloved, political democratic institutions would be “subverted by malefactors of great wealth, who would get their hooks into government official and then erode them from within.” Dwight Eisenhower, in his most famous speech ever, another Republican, warned Americans against the domination of the Military-Industrial Complex and the loss of our values that would come with the ascendency of the Military-Industrial Complex. We’re living in that era right now. Abraham Lincoln, the greatest Republican in history, said in 1863, at the height of the Civil War, ” I have the South in front of me and I have the bankers behind me, and for my nation, I fear the bankers more.”
And Franklin Roosevelt, during World War ll, said that the domination of government by corporate power is “the essence of fascism.” In 1932, the Nazi Party had a 1.1 approval rating. Then, all of a sudden the big imperialists like Krupp and Messerschmidt and the chemical industry came in and said,” We’ll will make a pact with you. You provide the foot soldiers for the cause of corporate profit taking.” And Hitler got in. He got rid of all of Hindenburg’s cabinet. He replaced them with industrialists. He let the industrialists run the country. He cut taxes to the rich. He banned unions and that was called European style Fascism The same thing happened with Franco’s Spain and Mussolini’s Italy.
You hand the power over to the industrialist and it becomes a kind of industrial feudalism or corporate kleptocracy. Mussolini, who had an insider view of that process, complained that Fascism should not be called Fascism, it should be corporatism, because it was a merger of state and corporate power. What we have to understand in our country is,
there is a huge difference between free market capitalism, which makes a nation more efficient, more prosperous and more democratic, and the kind of corporate crony capitalism, which has been embraced in the State Houses and in Washington DC, today, which is anathetical to efficiency, prosperity and democracy in America, as it is in Nigeria.
Crony capitalism is really capitalism for the poor and socialism for the rich and corporations. We really need to understand that the domination of business by the government is called communism, and the domination of government by business is called fascism. Our job is to walk a narrow lane in between, which is free market capitalism democracy, and keep big business at bay with our right hand and excessive corporate power at bay with our left.
In order to do this we need an independent and courageous press that is willing to speak up, to stand up and speak truth to power, and doesn’t get distracted by entertainment news like Britanny Spears’ slow emotional decline; That talks about the issues that we have to understand to make rational decisions about democracy. And you need a public that is informed and able to recognize all the milestones of tyranny.
Q- Wouldn’t it also take campaign finance reform and the public understanding of the need for it.
Q- We’ve taken a huge step backward.
RKJ: We lost democracy at one point in our country. We lost democracy during the 1880s, when the big trusts were running our country and they were running it for their business. The Steel Trust, the Railroad Trust, they were all overlapping boards. There was the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fricks, the Osborns, a number of other large corporate trusts, held by a few multi-millionaire families just like in South America. And they owned everything in our country, and at that time they owned the legislatures.
It was said at that time that John D. Rockefeller had done everything to the Pennsylvania Legislature except for refine it. And at that time the legislatures appointed the senators, so there was no direct election of senators. So they could literally appoint every senator in the Unites States Senate just by controlling these legislatures and that’s what they did.
These big corporations did that.
A couple of things happened during the early 1900’s. You had a couple of reformers come along. And one of those reformers was a Republican- Teddy Roosevelt, who had incredible charisma and was able to stand up to the big corporations and then you had a whole slew of really, really courageous journalists who turned our country around. Ida Tarbell and Sinclair Lewis and cartoonists. And they really turned the country around and made Americans safe for the first time as Democracy was falling apart around them. They woke Americans up and they passed the Sherman Anti-Trust act of 1903, that got rid of monopolies. They passed graduated income tax, so the rich had to pay their share. They passed laws that allowed unions to organize, so we began developing a middle class in the country. And above all, In 1907 they passed a law that said corporations cannot make direct contributions to Federal political campaigns and that law lasted 100 years and then 2 ½ years ago, in the Citizen United Case, the Supreme Court, which is not conservative, the Supreme Court is corporatist.
If you look at classic conservatism, it has nothing to do with this court. This court is always on the side of the corporations. I wrote the introducton to Barry Goldwater’s book “Conscience of a Conservative”, which is the bible of the conservative movement, and he says the same thing. He says, You know what? Corporations are a really important thing. They encourage people to assemble money and then to risk it, and they drive prosperity. And that’s what you want to do, but they should not be running our country. Because corporations want a different thing than Americans want. Corporations don’t want democracy. They don’t want free markets. They want profits, and the best way for them to get profits is to use our campaign finance system, which is just a system of legalized bribery,
to get their hooks into a public official and then use that public official to
give them them monopoly control and competitive edge in the marketplace and skew it towards them and then to allow them to privatize the commons. That’s what you see in West Virginia, where the corporations really have fixed the whole deal. It’s not democracy anymore. It’s a corporate kleptocracy. It’s a plutocracy.
The biggest thing they did was campaign finance reform. This Supreme Court, If you look at the history of the Supreme Court…my partner was the clerk to the Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court on a very interesting court matter, and he did a diagram of all of their decisions (Scalia, Alito Thomas and Roberts) and there’s a formula, which isn’t conservatism. If an individual goes up against a corporation, the individual loses. If an individual goes up against government, the individual loses. If a corporation goes up against government, the corporation wins. So in all cases the corporation wins. It’s a blueprint for the domination of our country.
They passed this law “Citizens United”, which gets rid of a hundred years of environmental law and H.L. Mencken (who we talked about when we came in here) one of the things that H.L. Mencken said was that, ” A journalist was someone who can’t distinguish between the end of civilization and a bicycle accident.” And, you know, we saw Citizen United pass, and the next year we’re reading about Charlie Sheen. They appeal to the prurient interest all of us have in the Reptilian parts of our brain- sex and celebrity gossip, and we’re, today, the best entertained and least informed people in the world.
Q. The Chinese are now using that model to keep their people distracted. They give them consumer goods. That’s their choice, an Orwellian “Brave New World.” You talked about the journalists in the early part of the 20th century, are documentary filmmakers now that new breed of independent journalist trying to speak truth to power?
RKJ: Yeah I think they are. It was magazine writers. McClure’s, a big magazine in the 1880’s-1890’s, published all of these investigative journalists. (Note: McClure’s Magazine is credited with creating muckraking journalism.) It printed all of these exposes on democracy, and some of the great cartoonists were working for them.
RM: It was very moving when you talked in the film about your dad giving you a tutorial and basically predicted what was going to happen. He said they weren’t just impoverishing communities. They were getting rid of communities to get rid of the unions. This happened in West Virginia and it’s a metaphor for what’s happened all over the country. The unions have been roundly attacked, and the places for journalists to run investigative journalism and get paid for it have collapsed, so how do we proceed?
RKJ: Well, I don’t have an answer for you. I am trying to do my part, and I think we all have to do our part and then die with our boots on. I have a radio show that talks about these issues. What we found when we did Air America is that Air America failed because we could not get advertising because we were blackballed. We were going head to head, and we had tiny little signals, and we were going head to head against Rush Limbaugh and Clear Channel and we were beating them everywhere we went, Even in conservative districts. We were the number one most popular radio station in San Diego. A Republican district. And all over the country. Even where we were allowed in the Mid-west, we were beating people head to head.
But, our biggest advertisements were for penis enlargement and erectile dysfunction, and weird crap that you’re embarrassed about. We got a note, I even have a copy of it still, with several hundred corporations, that was being circulated by ABC, saying all these corporations don’t want to appear on Air America. Naturally we’re not going to get pharmaceutical dollars because we’re attacking the pharmaceutical industry all the time. We’re not going to get Oil dollars. We’re not going to get Coal or Automobile, which is the biggest, 15.5 billion dollars. But it was also recreational equipment, REI, you would think they’d be on our side, but they were on the list. And these were all the companies that were boycotting progressive radio.
Q- You touched on the fact that it takes an active press to get behind this, but the problem with the way the press is structured in America is that the press is owned by corporations who choose to pay people to only write about particular things. So, in a way, the only free press in America is the blogoshere which is not always taken seriously. That cornerstone ( a courageous press) has been removed and it’s been substituted with something that shores up the agenda of the Right and the Republicans. How do you get around that? How do people get motivated or even know what to get motivated about? A lot of this goes back to the Supreme Court. It’s really frightening what’s going to happen in two years time. There’s going to be money pouring into those elections and we’re going to have no idea where the money’s coming from because, now, it doesn’t need to be reported. God help us in two year time.
RKJ: Yeah, I am worried about it and I think everybody is worried about it and the people on Capital Hill, who are watching the money accumulate against them, are terrified of it. Terrified for our democracy.
I think we have to is create the same kind of infrastructure that the right wing created in this country over the past thirty years. They were very patient. They built Fox News as their own network. We now have MSNBC and that, in some way, counterbalances Fox Network.
I think the big tragedy was losing CNN, when Ted Turner walked away from CNN because he got distracted. CNN could have provided us the counterbalance (to what is going on at Fox News) and could have changed the history in our country. We have to use all the little tools of communication to build structures, platforms for progressive advocacy, to fight the powers of ignorance and greed that are threatening to drag us into Armegeddon.
Q. What were you most surprised about in making the documentary?
RKJ: I guess, just the disconnect between what is happened down there and how inconsistent it is with American values. That is really is a colonial economy. They are sickening and killing people and it used to be…I spent a lot of my time growing up in Latin America, watching United Fruit and I T&T and Anaconda Kennecott destroy the lives of people and poison them and stuff. But that was happening there. Being angry at those companies, and now it’s our companies doing it towards the air, and they’re tearing down an entire mountain range where Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone and Bluegrass music and Nascar racing comes from there and so much of American culture is rooted there-the Appalacian Mountains, the richest eco-system north of the equator.
The reason for that is, because during the Pleistoscene Ice Age, which began 20,000 years ago, my home in Mt. Kisco, New York had two and a half miles of ice over the top of it, and virtually all of North America became a Tundra. So there were no trees left and the only place the forest survived were in a tiny, what they called a refugium, in Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. There’s a tiny place there, which because of the peculiar barriers of these mountains which were quite a bit higher back then, protected these little valleys and the forests were able to thrive and they didn’t get pushed down by the glaciers. After the glaciers withdrew, 12,000 years ago, all North America was re-seeded from the seed stock in the Appalachians. So they’re the mother forest of all North America.
In the typical North American forest, like where I live, there’s three dominant tree species and that’s pretty common all across North America. In Appalachia, there’s 80 dominant tree species in any forest you walk into. There’s more abundance and bio diversity per cubic meter than any other place north of the equator. So this is the richest eco system north of the equator. And now, Massey Coal is doing to it what the glaciers couldn’t do, which is piling it under, and poisoning the people and destroying the communities. It just shouldn’t be happening.