There’s an old joke about a couple from Pennsylvania who die in a car crash and find themselves at the gates of heaven. When it is confirmed that they are of pure of soul, Jesus meets the couple at the pearly gates to give them their welcome tour. He shows them the walls of jasper, the streets of jewels, and the entire gold city. At the end of his tour, he asks if there are any questions. “Just one,” the couple says, “Who are the people in the cages over there?” To which a slightly annoyed Jesus replies, “Oh, those are the West Virginians. If we let them out, they try to sneak home on the weekends.”
This is the joke I think about every time I pass the Wild and Wonderful welcome sign to my home state. For me, the last leg of any trip back to the only place I’ll ever call home is a narrow access road winding through trees and hillsides, following a stretch of pavement that is routinely repaired in the summer and obliterated every winter by an endless parade of rushing, rumbling coal trucks. Houses and mobile homes pass by the car windows in spurts and stretches, the hills rise and fall like lungs catching air.
Early in the new documentary Overburden, Betty Harrah, who in the opening of the film is a staunch supporter of the coal industry, drives along a very similar road, pointing out that the “fancy dancy” houses built along the roadside were constructed and inhabited by local miners. But even as she points to this measure of relative affluence, there’s also a passing glimpse of stained and rusted mobile homes sitting crooked on trailer jacks. Shortly thereafter, at a scene documenting a community gathering, local voice Bill Price points out that the area doesn’t look the same as it once did — the suggestion being that the “empty lots where schools used to be and empty houses” are evidence of some distinct failure that’s been allowed to happen.
When I got the chance to speak to Chad A. Stevens, the director of Overburden, our exchange built a sort of incidental reflection of experiences. I am a displaced West Virginia son who has moved away from coal country and now looks from the outside in, while Stevens’ work has pulled him from the outside into the heart of Appalachia and its people. The boundary of our figurative mirror was that pivotal inside perspective.
Prior to his work on Overburden, Stevens (now a first-time feature-length filmmaker) had spent a year doing multimedia work in Uganda before returning home and, as he puts it, “gleefully stumbling” into a position teaching photojournalism at Western Kentucky University in his hometown of Bowling Green. Stevens comes from a family of tobacco farmers, so even before starting this film he possessed a fundamental understanding of what happens when economic, social, and political factors influence the fate of a fading industry.
When I learned of his background and experience, the first thing I thought to ask was whether or not Stevens had ever witnessed a cultural conflict this complex — whether he could think of any comparative situation where good people were fighting for the right reasons but against the better interest of themselves, their region, and their world. He took a contemplative moment before answering:
I’d have to say no. Even though I’m from Kentucky, I’m not from Appalachian Kentucky. So from an outsider perspective, it’s easy for an outsider to say “that’s black and white.” But from an insider perspective you can see a lot of gray area. The people who are fighting for what I would see is wrong are still good people just fighting for their families. They don’t have options. And that’s been orchestrated over time by politics and corporate power to create an economy where there is no viable opportunity beyond going underground or working above ground in the coal mines.
It’s a strange circumstance, one in which those who suffer the greatest to the unjust practices of a geologically unhealthy and politically evil industry have been conditioned to serve as that industry’s loudest protective frontline voices. Though they may be wrong in their fight, they are not wrong to be fighting, and this is the complexity that is surgically handled by Stevens’ documentary.
From a narrative perspective, the central event of Overburden is the Upper Big Branch mine disaster of 2010, a catastrophe that resulted in 29 dead miners. Today, with a full and comprehensive series of investigations having taken place, it seems the event very likely might have been preventable.
The film captures a eulogy offered at a memorial service for these fallen miners, in which a fellow miner explains: “A West Virginia coal miner is a special person. A proud person. A hard worker, yet humble.” This assessment, though offered in emotional duress, is nonetheless indisputable.
Any useful consideration Overburden‘s larger topic really should start here. In a conversation composed of politically manipulated fact, pages of convoluted legal text, buried asterisk footnotes, and opinions that carry more qualifying subtext than text, this — that the laborers within this industry are commendable in their strength of spirit, their family-like togetherness, and their humble ambition — is the truest information available in a complex equation. And thus, it’s the only real launching point of understanding.
For those who don’t know, Mountaintop Removal Mining is an industry practice of mining a mountain range’s summits and ridges by blasting and removing the land above coal seams. Hundreds of feet of elevation can be lost in this process and there aren’t always regulations to ensure that the mountain will be restored to its original height (Appalachian Voices). “Overburden” is the industry term given to the rock, soil, trees, and ecosystem that lie above the desired coal, the wasted material that is then pushed aside in further stages of this ecologically unhealthy process. Overburden is the perfect title for Stevens’ documentary, as it is a term so ironic in its implications that it feels as though its very usage by the industry is a form of self-righteous, mocking irony.
Mountaintop Removal Mining is the desperate method of a dying industry and for anyone with any sense of environmental consciousness, it’s a devastating process to witness. The resulting scars upon the land are so heart-breakingly ugly that some might be stunned to learn that there is even a political debate to be had here. This same reactionary crisis is what lead Stevens to pursue this topic as a film, when a friend drove him to see the damage firsthand.
“A lot of people who see and know of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal, I don’t think they agree with it,” Stevens explained about the miners and residents of the towns in which mining is the only real viable career option, “It’s just seen as a necessary evil. There’s extreme views on both sides. But most people at least wish it wasn’t that way.”
This is an important distinction. Local residents fight intensely in defense of the mining industry, not because they’re blind to the damage wrought by the poorly regulated coal companies, but more so because they have no other option. Throughout the documentary, as she moves from one side of the cause to the other, Betty Harrah remains quick to remind anyone who will listen that the working wage of the coal miner (around $28.50 an hour) is far more substantial than any alternative option in the same region. Most other jobs in the area offer minimum wage ($8.00 an hour as of April, 2015) or something barely above. The imbalance in this comparison is not exaggerated. I know this because, incidentally, it’s the primary reason I no longer live in West Virginia.
So when we are shown scenes of miners, their families, and their supporters counter-protesting (and in some cases violently confronting) those individuals attempting to change the embedded status quo, it’s necessary to remember that they are not defending the terrible things happening to their surrounding geography or even for the right to continue an industry of unclean energy. They’re simply fighting for their right to decent living conditions, a benefit whose offering has been monopolized in the area by the coal industry for a century and a half.
The ever-popular “Friends of Coal” bumper sticker might more accurately read “Friends of Not Living in Poverty.”
The history of the coal industry in this area is long and complex, one of the most volatile chapters in the history of American labor. The contemporary environment of coal mining’s close-fisted control in West Virginia is the result of battles and wars (both figurative and literal) that started and ended before many current coal miners were even born. This general truth might go a long way to explain why the social, political, and economic landscape surrounding the industry might feel like such a fixed and permanent reality to the residents and workers.
This mindset does not exist incidentally, and there are great efforts currently in place to maintain this sense of socio-economic hopelessness. For the West Virginia coal miner, standing in opposition against their industry, or even supporting those who do, means not only risking the loss of the only viable career available, but braving a confrontation of the powerful entities that author these conditions.
Overburden is not shy about putting a specific face to the villain. There is a necessity for this to be established and Stevens is smart not to dance around it.
Massey Energy was one of the country’s largest energy companies in the 2000s and the prominent coal producer in Southern West Virginia for the better part of the decade under investigation in Overburden. While Stevens is quick to associate the company with the face and name of its then-CEO Don Blankenship, his movie, in its pursuit of a human interest story, only fractionally illustrates the boundless corruption and political influence of the company and its figurehead.
The first part of the film focuses on the efforts of a small collection of active individuals to implement windmill infrastructure as an alternative option to removing the mountains, as removing the mountain or even lessening the elevation destroys the sought-after permanent wind capacity of the ridge lines in exchange for just 17 more years of mineable coal. Driven by local resident Lorelei Scarbro (whose husband was a coal miner who perished to black lung) and activist and organizer Rory McIlmoil, the plan, complete with extensive economic research and scientific data, makes its way to state legislature.
An impassioned Scarbro demands to speak to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin so that she might explain the imperative need for this initiative to move quickly and demand the revocation of Massey Energy’s permits to apply mountain removal methods on Coal River Mountain. Her persistence pays off and the camera captures the frustratingly fruitless exchange.
In our conversation, Stevens elaborated on Manchin’s dismissiveness.
Manchin’s endless recycled line is “there’s a due process.” Rory confronted him one time also. And [Manchin] says again: “There’s a due process.” Every time it comes up… And there is some level of process, but it was very apparent for me that politicians were heavily influenced by the power of the coal industry. They were all very conscious that if they went against the coal industry, the coal industry would fund their opponent and they would lose their seat. In my opinion, Manchin always seemed to be intimidated by Massey in particular. Lorelei would say “What is the process?” And there was never an answer. It was just an endless circle. It was like this very ambiguous, intangible unknown, and there was no real way to get in. I don’t think that was accidental, just from what I witnessed. If there was support to new ideas or alternatives at that time, the door would have been opened.
At one point, the group managed to collect a number of legislative signatures on their initiative (just under the 51 needed to keep the resolution alive), as some lawmakers at least committed to being open to the possibility of an alternative. However, Stevens detailed for me an account provided to him from Rory McIlmoil, who said the list was apparently left in the office of one of those legislators, allowing it to be obtained by the wrong person. The list was copied and distributed. McIlmoil claims that shortly thereafter he began receiving phone calls from some who had already signed on, saying that they needed to remove their name from the list for reasons they couldn’t disclose.
There is a vicious cycle here, moving with the seemingly irreversible energy of a tornado. The main players in the coal industry in West Virginia have a strong interest in eliminating and preventing economic diversity. At one point in Stevens’ movie, Scarbro refers to economy in the area as a “mono-economy.” The coal industry’s overwhelming occupation of the economic landscape allows for the industry to define the terms of its own playing field, both in the sense of political regulation and socio-economic value and perception. If the miners have to live under continuous observation of that lack of options, they will politically protect this single existing option at any cost.
If this all sounds like the stuff from a paranoid political novel, so might this: in the 2012 Presidential Primaries, a prison inmate ended up on the primary ballot in West Virginia and obtained roughly 40% of the votes from West Virginia’s Democrats. Most seemed to attribute the traditionally Democratic state’s cartoonishly absurd reluctance to vote for Obama to the sitting President’s Environmental Protection Agency policies and their impact on the coal industry. Consider the residual symbolic implications certainly noted by state-level politicians.
Also consider the advantage that this environment of political paranoia lends to Massey Energy, who, even before the major events in this film, had already illustrated criminal levels of political influence in 2007 when Don Blankenship was revealed to have vacationed with Justice Elliot E. “Spike” Maynard, who played a large part in the West Virginia Supreme Court’s decision to reverse a $50 million dollar ruling against Massey (Ross).
When hearings within the movie reveal that Massey fabricated safety inspection results leading up to the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster, there’s an immeasurable corporate hubris on display that becomes far less shocking when the company’s backstory and current reach is more clearly visible.
The measurement of this level of corrupt social conditioning provides the real value of Stevens’ film in two distinct ways.
First, in the nation’s current political environment, this illustration of extreme insulation of political protection for corporate power is a valuable cautionary tale, as it reveals, in real terms, the logical conclusion to the growing political benefits enjoyed by corporations and industrial powerhouses over the last two decades.
Second, the vile practices of institutional evil serve as the perfect foil for the film’s quietly giant heroes.
From the beginning, Lorelei Scarbro, whose son-in-law still works in the mine, has tried to take the fight to the doorstep of these cruel industry giants, which in and of itself is a move of incredible courage. But one might forget the more intimate battle she is continually fighting within her own small town. As Stevens explained it: “Activists come in and stir the pot which can create tensions, and they can leave. But she doesn’t. This is her home. So for her to lead in this wind campaign was a bold move. She still has to go to Lloyd’s Gas Station and run into her neighbors, who pretty intensely disagreed with her.”
Later, when Betty Harrah joins forces with Scarbro, the two exhibit the rarest sort of ideological compromise. Their political ambitions still, to this day, do not cleanly align, but they’ve managed to push for justice and progress by accepting their philosophical caveats and focusing on that on which they do agree. This sort of measured compromise is all-to-rare in a modern society where major issues are commonly brought to a standstill by the increasing divisiveness of a general population following the model of its infantile political leaders.
Stevens begins his film with the birth of Scarbro’s grandchild (in a serendipitous coincidence, this occurs on Earth Day). This chosen starting point frames the entire conflict as being one that must be won for the future and it colors the film’s final victory as one that inspires immense hope.
When Stevens and I discuss this hope, he points me in the direction of the new Federal POWER Plus Initiative, a plan that provides “$55 million in funding for job training, job creation, economic diversification, and other economic efforts in communities that have experienced layoffs due to the declining coal industry” (Valentine).
With an enemy this big, in a conflict this established, this brand of hope is an invaluable discovery. There is nothing more disheartening than a social cause documentary that lacks the first steps of an action plan. Reasons to keep fighting are sometimes difficult to come by. But Stevens, as a storyteller, seems to have a special gift for telling his stories from a place of hope. When I asked him what became of the wind initiative, this talent for optimism was on display:
No one is actively campaigning for a wind farm right now. The research still stands. But no one is campaigning. There has only been limited blasting. Because of limitations from the Obama administration, they were limiting 404 permits. They couldn’t dump the overburden into the valleys without officially contaminating streams. They could blast around this impoundment. They blasted and bulldozed the overburden into the impoundment, but they were limited to that. Because they’re not issuing these permits, Coal River Mountain is still standing strong.
At the end of our conversation, Stevens informed me that Lorelei Scarbro, Rory McIlmoil, Bill Price, and Betty Harrah would be present for the film’s premiere at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival on April 10, 2015. He explains that even though Betty has been dealing with a few health problems, she wanted to be present for the premiere so she could “show her support.”
“How amazing is that?” he asked, “She’s done all these things for me already. After all she’s been through, she wants to be there to support me.”
From here, he continued to describe the goodness of the all the people within the community surrounding Coal River Mountain.
People are people. You find the good. There’s good everywhere. In general, I was overwhelmingly accepted. When you really stop and talk to people, not with cameras out, but connecting with people in real conversations, there was overwhelming acceptance. I feel very warm and connected to that area. I feel a strong connection to the people. I know over that ridge, there’s mountain removal going on and that’s a darkness I wish wasn’t there. But the valleys, the streams, the people… all wonderful things worth celebrating.
“Warm” is the word that struck me the hardest.
The residents of many regions, towns, states, and even countries have a distinct sense of pride in the place they call home. But there is a unique sense of connection that residents of West Virginia, both native-born and adopted, share with their land and its extraordinarily sincere people. Once this connection is established, it is impossible to shake.
Breece D’j Pancake, the greatest of all West Virginia writers and one of the most compassionately regional authors in American history, was born and raised just over an hour’s drive away from where Stevens’ film takes place. While studying writing in Charlottesville, Virginia, Pancake sent a letter home to his mother that explained: “I’m going to come back to West Virginia when this is over. There’s something ancient and deeply-rooted in my soul. I like to think that I have left my ghost up one of those hollows, and I’ll never really be able to leave for good until I find it. And I don’t want to look for it, because I might find it and have to leave.”
Some might find the excerpt confusing or dreary, but I think I know exactly what Pancake means. It’s a strange notion to entertain, for sure, so it might seem equally or more strange to readers when I say that I think it is rooted in some abstract truth. While I’m still alive and breathing, it feels a better version of myself — perhaps a ghost in the form of a child with splinters in his hands and scrapes on his knees and a hard layer of black on his feet — is haunting the woods at the edge of a holler and that’s to whom my heart is calling with its ever-present recognition of home. It is an idea that is both comforting and scary. Scarier still is the more concrete nightmare reality that a powerful, inhumane industry is attempting to lay waste to my home and the home of my better ghost.
It is in these terms that Overburden will, for some, play like a much needed injection of comfort and hope. Chad A. Stevens has authored a documentary about a problem that needs to be more widely known, about a people who need to be better understood, and about courageous heroism that needs to seen to be believed.
Appalachian Voices. Accessed April 3, 2015. http://appvoices.org/.
Pancake, Breece D’j. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake. Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.
Ross, Brian. “The Downfall of Coal King Don Blankenship.” ABC News. November 14, 2014. Accessed April 3, 2015. http://abcnews.go.com/US/downfall-king-coal/story?id=26902484.
Valentine, Katie. “Obama’s Budget Provides Millions For Out-Of-Work Coal Miners.” ThinkProgress. February 2, 2015. Accessed March 28, 2015.http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/02/02/3618103/power-plus-plan-for-coal-miners/.