Two women and the mountain between them
When an errant spark ignited the methane leaking in the Upper Big Branch mine in 2010, a fireball ripped through miles of underground tunnels in Appalachia’s coal country, killing everything it touched – including 29 men. In the aftermath of the devastating explosion, two former political enemies are united by the toll the disaster takes on their families and community: a right-wing pro-coal activist joins forces with a tree-hugging grandmother to take down the most dangerous coal company in the United States.
Having grown up in Kentucky, I thought I knew Appalachia. I thought I knew what it meant to be a coal miner. I thought I understood the ways in which the land had shaped the people. I thought I knew what it looked like to raise a family there, to provide, to do what’s right. But after beginning this project nearly 10 years ago, I learned that it’s a place of coal and contradictions.
This film is largely about those contradictions. For those on the outside, like myself, the answers seem easy. Coal is bad. Water is life. Don’t blow up the mountains. What’s hard to see from the outside is the reason folks are so dedicated to the very industry that ultimately, and statistically, ends their lives 10 years earlier than other Americans. This is because the region has been engineered to support only one economy, a coal economy, leaving families with only one option: a job in the coal mine. Even though that very coal company may blow up your land, it’s also the company that signs your paychecks, that gives you health insurance, and that feeds your children. And people fight fiercely to defend their families.
In the process called mountaintop removal coal mining, “overburden” is a term used to define the rock, soil, trees and ecosystem that lie above a seam of coal. This overburden is blasted and bulldozed away to access the coal below. It is shoved into valleys, discarded, much like the people who live and work in those valleys are cast aside. The goal of this film is to humanize those people, to explore the complicated issues and to spark conversation that can move beyond the expected and polarizing debates and allow viewers to access an empathetic view of a people and a place that few Americans truly understand.