More than 40 years after his father fought strip mining in Appalachia, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is following in his footsteps.
RFK Jr. is helping local activists in West Virginia try to halt a coal-mining process that blasts off mountaintops, ruining the landscape and causing a host of environmental and health problems.
The issue is spotlighted in “The Last Mountain,” a documentary that focuses on efforts to stop mountaintop removal in West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. The film, written and directed by Bill Haney, opens Friday in New York and Washington, D.C.
“If you live next to one of these operations, they rain boulders and toxic dust on you, they poison your wells and your children, and they destroy your property values,” Kennedy said in an interview last week at a Manhattan hotel.
Most mountaintop removal in Appalachia has been done by Massey Energy Co. (MEE), which is being taken over by Alpha Natural Resources. An investigation into an explosion that killed 29 workers at a Massey mine in West Virginia last year found that the company operated “in a profoundly reckless manner.”
In 2008, Massey agreed to pay a record $20 million fine for violations of the federal Clean Water Act, the largest amount ever for a water-pollution case.
“The business plan of the whole industry is essentially to violate the law and then figure out ways not to get prosecuted for it,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy, a 57-year-old lawyer and environmental activist, was 14 years old when his father was assassinated in 1968 while running for the Democratic presidential nomination. He looks remarkably like his namesake, but no longer sounds like him because of spasmodic dysphonia, a disorder that makes his voice raspy.
Despite a grassroots campaign against mountaintop mining, Kennedy said the coal industry’s political and financial clout has allowed it to continue.
“They’ve taken away the capacity for individuals to participate in local democracy and make decisions that determine the destinies of their community,” he said. “Zoning laws and planning laws don’t exist in West Virginia. The industry does whatever it wants.”
Kennedy said he doesn’t expect Alpha Natural Resources to stop the Coal River Mountain project that Massey initiated.
“There’s $190 million worth of coal there and they’re determined to get it,” he said. “And they don’t have to pay any taxes for cutting down the mountain because the tax structure has been rigged in their favor.”
Alternative energy sources such as solar and wind are more cost efficient and environmentally friendly than coal, Kennedy said.
“We’re building it in three years,” Kennedy said. “It takes at least 10 years to build a coal plant and 30 years to build a nuclear plant. And we’re building it at a fifth of the cost of a nuke plant.”
“Also, once you build a coal plant, your big costs are just beginning,” he added. “You’ve got to cut down mountains, ship coal across the country, burn the coal, poison fish and pollute the air. Once you build a solar plant, you’ve got free energy forever.”
In the film, some coal supporters accuse Kennedy of being an outside agitator. Kennedy said the charge is ironic because many of Massey’s coal miners aren’t from West Virginia.
“Massey doesn’t like to hire West Virginians because there’s a union culture there and the company has tried to destroy the miners union,” he said. “They bring in people from other states, put them to work for five to eight years cutting down mountains and then move them someplace else.”
(Rick Warner is the movie critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)
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