The Last Mountain is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s hard-hitting new documentary about the toxic impact of America’s coal industry on the health of the nation. CAHIR O’DOHERTY hears the impassioned plea of one of Irish America’s most famous sons for an end to the destructive madness.
Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. breezes into the Crosby Street Hotel in upscale Soho with all the self-assurance his clan is famous for.
The first thing you notice about him is how strongly he resembles his famous father. A young looking 57, he has the ease and agility of a much younger man.
Then in his wake you notice the expensive looking staffers who work alongside him, all of whom seem content to let him take the spotlight.
But the effect of his arrival is not complete until you hear him talking in that languid East Coast accent that has irritated conservatives for generations; it directly connects him to his father and his uncle. This man is undeniably a Kennedy.
And if there’s one thing that RFK, Jr. knows about, it’s how power is distributed in the United States. It’s been a family trade for generations. And these days, Kennedy Jr., the reformed bad boy on a mission, wants to use all of that awareness to do good.
Perhaps this late in life missionary zeal about environmental issues is atonement for the excesses of his rollercoaster life in the public eye. Twice divorced (his most recent one to Mary Richardson Kennedy, after 16 years of marriage, came as late as last year) and once arrested for heroin possession in the 1980s, Kennedy has lived a far from spotless existence, with controversy dogging him at various points.
In a sad coda to their long marriage his ex-wife Mary Kennedy was arrested when a police officer saw her drive her car over a curb near their home in Bedford in upstate New York last year. RFK Jr. did not appear at her arraignment, where she pleaded not guilty.
Twice in the week before her arrest the police had been called to the Kennedy home, and in one call Mary Kennedy reported a dispute between her children. Officers said that there had been no crimes committed and no need for follow-up.
As though to acknowledge all this drama in his private life, we are told before the press conference that our questions should relate to The Last Mountain, the new film Kennedy narrates and stars in.
Given no chance to expand on the man or the details of his life, it’s clear he wants this to be an impersonal promotion of the film, not a personal examination of the man behind it.
Critics will scoff that he has some nerve to be addressing environmental issues at all. After all, they say, in 2005 Kennedy was accused of hypocrisy because he received royalty payments for two family-owned oil drilling companies, and also for using private jets while lecturing America about the perils of global warming.
In fairness to him, though, there’s nothing in his hard hitting new film about the coal industry that could be described as unfair or unconvincing. Kennedy may have lived an imperfect life, but so have most people, and it doesn’t discredit his concern for the nation and its natural resources.
I have to admit I was dreading viewing The Last Mountain. Here we go, I thought -- another windy standoff between economists and environmentalists.
Like most people, before the lights even went down I was glumly anticipating The Last Mountain would be a two hour long lecture delivered by a smug East Coast Brahmin. But thankfully it turned out to be a riveting and infuriating portrait of a local community under siege from big industry, and you can’t help but be swept up by the tragic tale.
There are quite a few environmentally safe fuels nowadays but, let’s face it, coal isn’t one of them. In fact, as The Last Mountain makes clear, coal is systematically poising our nation and the planet.
There’s a fight going on for America’s mountains, the film says, to which lives, jobs and entire communities have already been lost and the future looks anything but certain.
“You turn on a light and the electricity is there,” Kennedy tells the Irish Voice. “We take it for granted. But do you ever think how it gets there?
“At the end of the day, no one can argue that we don’t need electricity. But The Last Mountain is a film that uncovers where it comes from and asks, at what cost?”
Mountaintop mining is cheaper than underground mining, says Kennedy. It’s permitted when coal companies promise they can safely remove all the debris they create and then re-plant the forests after the mine is exhausted.
But what really happens is just a cover up that puts a band-aid on the real extent of the damage. After the mountaintop is blown up it’s forgotten about and the companies simply move on to the next one, leaving the affected communities to fend for themselves.
The bottom line is that coal is both cheap and effective, a consideration that overrules all others, Kennedy says. Vested interests like America’s energy companies and its railroads have too much time and money invested to worry about its impact on the public’s health or the planet. If your paycheck depends upon you not understanding something, it’s amazing how blind you can become.
Change is on the horizon though, thanks to the growing concern of the Obama administration says Kennedy.
“We have the courts, we have the Obama administration, and we have a very good Environmental Protection Agency. There’s a lot more they should be doing, but they are largely sympathetic to trying to shut down mountain top removal.”
There’s a long road ahead before that reform happens, though. The Last Mountain begins, appropriately enough, at Coal River Mountain located deep in West Virginia in the valleys of Appalachia.
It is here that Massey Energy (the company behind the worst mining disaster in 40 years just last year) is literally removing mountaintops, one after another, in an environmentally devastating practice that mines coal as it contaminates the air and water, with no real intervention from Washington. And there’s a good reason for that, says Kennedy.
“Lobbyists are running our government. The coal industry has tremendous political clout on Capitol Hill because of its alliance with the railroads and coal burning utilities, which have contributed over billions to campaigns and lobbyists over the last 10 years,” Kennedy says.
“That buys you a lot of juice on Capitol Hill. One of the broader messages of this film is a warning to Americans about what happens when corporations take over our government.”
The good thing about being a Kennedy (there has got to be something) is that you understand how the levers of power work better than most. So The Last Mountain excels at delivering a staggering amount of information in an overtly cinematic way -- lobbyists, politicians, environmental protection laws, mining jobs, energy needs, alternative innovations and the government all come into play.
But how do you interest a public who would much rather be watching American Idol?
“The biggest challenge we face is how do we inform the public what’s going on when the press these days only wants to tell us about Charlie Sheen and not much about the issues that are important to making rational judgments in a democracy,” says Kennedy.
There really is no more investigative journalism going on in America nowadays, Kennedy adds. Making documentaries has become the only way to get the word out about the mountaintop removal that’s being hidden away from the American public’s eyes.
The reason that Massey has been able to cut down 500 mountains in West Virginia and bury 2,500 miles of rivers and streams is because so far they been able to keep these images from the American public and the American press just doesn’t cover them. That’s why The Last Mountain was made.
There is hope for the future too. Alternative energy sources are rapidly overtaking coal in terms of effectiveness and job creation. Kennedy takes solace from the fact.
“There’s actually more jobs now in America in the wind industry than there are in coal mining, according to the bureau of labor statistics -- 86,000 people are employed by the wind industry and only 81,000 people are employed by the coal mining industry,” says Kennedy.
It’s a numbers game, but it’s trending in Kennedy’s direction. That must be a sobering thought for the coal industries, who know that historically Kennedys only align themselves with the winning side.
(The Last Mountain is currently in limited release in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider distribution due.)