February 26, 1972—A thirty-foot tidal wave of toxic black slurry swallowed sixteen West Virginia towns when the Pittson Company’s coal waste impoundment burst open and spilled down the mountainside of Buffalo Creek hollow. Pittson legally described it as “an Act of God,” and many people today believe it was some kind of natural disaster. This is the paradox central to Blood on the Mountain, a new documentary that goes deep into West Virginia to take a look at coal’s war on Appalachia over the past hundred years. Despite the coal industry’s damaging impact on people’s health through environmental contamination and dangerous working conditions, the film shows that many in this part of the world defend coal mining, an attitude that derives partly from a complex, proud cultural history, and partly from the strategic displacement of responsibility by corporate interests.
Through a mix of eyewitness accounts, rich archival material, and vividly photographed landscapes, the film demonstrates how cultural narratives have a strong grip on social formulations and therefore political agency. In the case of Buffalo Creek, as with many other serious spills, the government protects coal companies at all costs. Together they divert blame by covering up facts and spinning each incident as isolated from a systemic problem. The film focuses on a major chemical leak in 2014 that flowed downstream to Charleston and poisoned water in nine counties that still grapple with the effects. Freedom Industries managed to use corrupt investigators and bankruptcy loopholes to dodge blame.
But Appalachia has an inspiring history of speaking truth to power. Early-20th-century miners unionized en masse, making groundbreaking steps toward labor rights. Huge armed uprisings and strikes led to the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established minimum wage, collective bargaining rights, and the forty-hour workweek. Today union membership has drastically declined although many organizers are fighting against this trend. The film indicates that this left-wing history of the Rust Belt may be little known, and is hardly taught in schools that are sometimes directly funded by the coal companies, which would have much to lose if workers were to unionize. Scenes from an elementary school show children listening to a presentation on coal’s virtues, promoting beliefs congruent with corporate values.
This work has been in families for generations, and pride in the sacrifice of workers is a powerful force that is often co-opted in company narratives to promote loyalty. This ideology of sacrifice has obvious Christian undertones that go unexplored in the film, but it’s clear that coal has become a symbol of shared cultural values: hard work, masculinity, tradition, patrimony, a sense of belonging and contributing to society. The documentary suggests that miners are enabling their own ruination, but it could be more generous in this portrayal. For families entwined with economic and cultural pressures, the answers are complex. Many locals have severe coal-related health problems but are loaded with debt and dependent on their jobs for healthcare and pensions. An invocation of the greater good of American progress makes for honest work despite dishonest conditions.
Think of an entire town wearing the same t-shirt. Coal-sponsored social events build consensus and a sense of familial trust and wellbeing. Footage from company rallies, picnics, and concerts shows CEOs decked out in trucker hats and stars and stripes. This heavy nationalism trades in desperation, inciting fear that mining jobs, as the quintessential symbol of American labor, are under threat from external forces. Although the federal government gets in line with coal’s corporate financial objectives, Republican pundits (not to mention our president) pose themselves as the saviors of the coal worker, playing the image of the virtuous American miner against a disenfranchisement that can be easily reversed. But newly “efficient” ways of mining, such as mountaintop removal, simply don’t require the same manpower they once did, and with coal reserves disappearing, it seems the mining jobs simply aren’t coming back.
At a recent screening of the film, the producer Deborah Wallace, spoke to the way that creative thinking can reach through inflexible rhetoric to formulate new questions, to represent overlooked realities, and to instantiate possible futures. Wallace plans to screen the film in Appalachia, where she mentions reality TV is extremely popular. The moral lesson of these shows: if you mess up, it’s your fault. Her suggestion was that this media presents a picture of the individual as a sole contender making a personal sacrifice with no real recourse as a larger political body.
This deadlock so emblematic of our current political moment is apparent in one of the most memorable scenes of the film: pro-coal demonstrators and environmental activists shout each other down in a heated confrontation. Reimagining this conflict in less polar terms is a step toward self-determination, as new industries start to take root in the region and new possibilities for economic sovereignty emerge. The struggle to find common ground continues, but the producer’s commentary suggests that potential reconciliation comes out through nuance and narrative, and the film articulates many of these complexities. Hope emerges in the realization that Blood on the Mountain makes an inroad toward shifting the paradigm of what is in many ways a cultural fight.