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Originally published Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Robert Kennedy Jr. says West Virginia coal industry out of control in documentary

Robert Kennedy Jr., activist and environmental lawyer, is passionate about ending "mountaintop removal" coal mining in West Virginia. In a phone interview about the documentary film, "The Last Mountain," in which he appears, he argues that West Virginia is a corrupt "banana republic" owned lock, stock and barrel by King Coal and that the federal government should intervene.

Seattle Times arts writer

NOW PLAYING

'The Last Mountain'

Directed by Bill Haney. Rated PG. The Varsity. For a review, see Page E13 in Friday's NWTicket.
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"West Virginia has lost the capacity to govern itself," says Robert Kennedy Jr. on the phone. "We need federal intervention."

Kennedy, who suffers from the rare speech impediment spasmodic dysphonia, speaks in a pinched, slightly quavering voice, but crams shotgun sentences with statistics, like one of those characters on "The West Wing."

"If you tried to fill 25 feet of the Hudson River, we would put you in jail," he said. "They filled 2,500 miles of stream with no legal consequences. They've blown up 500 mountains in the last 10 years. They've flattened an area the size of the state of Delaware."

Kennedy is talking about the West Virginia coal-mining industry. His voice might just be quavering from anger, too.

The environmental lawyer and activist appears prominently in a new documentary film directed by Bill Haney, "The Last Mountain" (playing at the Varsity), which unabashedly advocates halting "mountaintop removal," a startling and little-publicized process in which the tops of mountains are literally blown off using buried explosives to expose the coal seams inside. Once the coal is removed, what's left of the mountain is "restored" with a layer of broken rock. How long it will take for anything to grow on these man-made moonscapes is anybody's guess.

The damage is devastating. Not only is the forest destroyed, creeks are clogged with silt and soil erosion causes flooding in the "hollows" below. Silica dust from the exploded coal seams contributes to an epidemic of silicosis and asthma and heavy metals from the mining process poison wells, possibly causing an abnormally high rate of cancer in local residents. The earthen walls of toxic-waste holding tanks — one perched directly above a schoolhouse (shown in the film) — have occasionally burst.

All this is possible, says Kennedy, because West Virginia is a rogue state that allows the private interests of the mining industry to trump federal law and the fundamental ownership by the American people of the nation's air and water. The states' rights-vs.-federal law situation is reminiscent of the South before the Civil Rights Act, he says.

The villain in the piece is Massey Coal, a company that racked up 60,000 environmental violations between 2000 and 2006 — with apparent impunity — and brought you the Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 miners last year. (Massey Coal was recently found to have cooked its books on safety violations, too.)

"All of the institutions of democracy have been subverted," says Kennedy, who has been trying to draw attention to the problem for a decade through articles, public appearances and the radio show "Ring of Fire." "Everything is secret. It's really a colonial economy, a banana republic, a company town. The agency that is supposed to protect the public is a puppet for King Coal."

In the film, Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, argues that mountaintop-removal mines are "construction sites."

Does Kennedy think Raney really believes this?

"H.L. Mencken once wrote that it's very difficult to persuade a man of a fact when the recognition of that fact will diminish his salary," Kennedy responds.

Kennedy got involved in Haney's film because he felt frustrated by how little the mainstream media has covered the issue.

"Documentary filmmaking is one of the only places where investigative reporting is happening in this country," he says.

Back in the '60s, the federal government intervened in the matter of civil rights. This time, the feds are dragging their feet.

"It's a mystery in some ways why Obama doesn't move more aggressively," says the politically savvy Kennedy. "There's no way he'll ever win West Virginia, anyway. But coal is a national issue. A federal issue. There are 22 coal-state senators that he needs for his agenda."

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

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