Twenty-nine miners died April 5 in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine, owned and operated by Massey Energy. Soon after the tragedy — the state's third major mining disaster in the last four years — all West Virginia mines shut down so state and federal officials could conduct safety reviews. According to The New York Times, it was the worst accident since a 1970 explosion at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky., killed 38.
Not far from Upper Big Branch Mine lies the Coal River Valley, where Asheville filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood have worked for almost six years to tell the stories of the people who live with mountaintop-removal coal mining every day. Final editing is under way, and the two plan to premiere their film this summer. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Mountain Xpress: Tell me a little bit more about On Coal River.
Francine Cavanaugh: We first heard about mountaintop removal when we came [to Western North Carolina] in 2003 [through the] monthly newspaper Appalachian Voices. We took a trip to Coal River Valley two years later and did a short film —
Adams Wood: It showed at the first Asheville film festival.
FC: We decided to focus on Coal River Valley, follow four people and tell their story. They're all fighting mountaintop removal and other coal issues.
And you're using a cinéma vérité style?
FC: We're following life as it's happening, telling the story through the eyes of these four people and others from their community. We follow the story of Marsh Fork Elementary School, which sits below one of [Massey's] sludge dams. The school's about two football fields away from the dam and a strip mine.
The dam holds back the waste from the mine?
FC: Yes. If it were to break, there would not be enough warning time for people to get out. It would strike [the school] within five minutes.
And the community has been trying to get a new school approved?
FC: [Nods]. After six years of fighting for one, they're going to get the money from the state to build a new school elsewhere.
We also follow "Maria," who finds out her water has toxins in it. People in her part of the valley are realizing that [the water is] making them all sick. They start demanding answers from the regulatory agencies.
But in the film, you record that nothing seems to get done.
FC: They take it upon themselves to secure clean water on an emergency-type basis, and they haul in water on their own. When you start thinking about the slurry ponds and what's coming out of people's faucets, it seems pretty clear where it's coming from, yet the coal companies and state officials deny the connection.
How did you end up in Asheville?
FC: We have different stories. We pointed to a map, and [the spot] was kind of close to Asheville. So we came and took a trip out here. Adams' family is on the East Coast, so we just kind of drove around and we ended up in Asheville. And we love it.
Adams has another version?
AW: I had lived in Durham for six months and drove through here on the way to Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest one time. I had decided, "I'm going camping" and got in the car with just a sleeping bag and a tent. I had to stop in Asheville to find a thrift store and buy a sweater.
You wound up at Vincent's Ear on that trip. What do you like most about Asheville?
FC: I love the mountains. There's just something about it. I'm from Chicago [and have] spent most of my life in big cities, but now I can't handle it.
Back to the film: What gets you in the gut?
FC: The four people we follow have such a deep connection with the land. They all have connections to coal mining in their family, whether they've done it themselves or people in their family have done it. They've lived there for generations, and they care so deeply about their homes and their families. They're putting themselves on the line, basically, by standing up to the [mining] companies and to the government.
And Marsh Fork Elementary, which figures so prominently in your film, is three miles from the mine where 29 died in early April?
AW: Just imagine if the mountains around here were being blown up and pushed into the streams: Would you want to stay here? These folks we're following are staying there and fighting for it, because it's their home, and it's where their relatives and their roots are.
To learn more about the film, visit http://oncoalriver.com.
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