One of the most telling moments in the new documentary film Blood on the Mountain draws from 2008 footage of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship calmly mumbling his replies to numerous questions on mine safety at a hearing. When asked if he knew how many coal miners had died in Massey mines in the eight years since Massey became a publicly traded company, the notorious “dark lord” of the coal industry shook his head and said no.
Filmmakers Mari-Lynn Evans and Jordan Freeman allow for a gut-wrenching moment of silence, having methodically chronicled the industry’s treadmill of violation-ridden disasters, and then provide the answer: 52 deaths under Blankenship as CEO of Massey Energy.
Unfolding with the plaintive air of an elegy, Blood on the Mountain captures this blatant disregard for the health and lives of coal miners — and the mountains they call home — as a timely reminder of the legacy of an essentially outlaw industry and its 150-year reign in West Virginia.
Yes, Virginia, there is a coal war in Appalachia, as defiant West Virginia-raised attorney Bruce Stanley tells the filmmakers, admonishing them to get the narrative right: “a war waged by coal on West Virginia.”
The world premiere of this compelling film documentary at today’s Workers Unite Film Festival in New York City couldn’t be more timely, on the heels of West Virginia coal-chemical spills, a mounting health crisis from strip-mining and black lung disease, and dangerous coal-slurry impoundments readying for the next foretold Buffalo Creek-type disaster.
And as viewers watch the film this week, Big Coal-bankrolled members of Congress will continue to deny the deadly costs and health impacts of strip-mining, coal companies will abandon miners and mines in bankruptcy, and the rogue elements of the industry will take one last mountaintop-removal blast at the region before picking up and moving to the Illinois Basin or abroad.
As the film’s best informants, local residents and former union coal miners like Terry Steele pull no punches. “They [couldn’t] care less about this place,” Steele says, noting that 80 to 90 percent of the mineral rights in his coal-rich county are owned by absentee corporations, adding that they “have no connection to land or people…. [W]hen they get everything they can get from it, they’re like locusts.”
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