First published June 24, 2014.

Clara Bingham (photo, Porter Gifford).

Clara Bingham (photo, Porter Gifford).

“There’s a theme here, I guess,” Clara Bingham muses as she tells me about her life as a writer. “These are David and Goliath stories. I like to write about whistle-blowers and people who put their lives on the line to fight corruption.”

Indeed she does. Bingham co-wrote the 2002 book Class Action: The Landmark Case That Changed Sexual Harassment Law, the story of a group of women hired through affirmative action to go down into the iron (taconite) mines in Evelyth, Minnesota. (It later became the movie North Country, with Charlize Theron and Frances McDormand.) “It was the only good job in town,” Bingham says, “and the women needed those jobs. For 10 years they were horribly harassed and assaulted, but they didn’t realize this was illegal.” And then, in 1984, miner Lois Jenson perceived that she had a legal right to fight the abuse. In 1988 she managed to get her colleagues to sue their company—“a daring and dangerous thing to do,” Bingham says. “There was fierce retaliation.”

Finally, in 1997, federal appellate judge Donald Lay ruled for the plaintiffs: “The emotional harm, brought about by this record of human indecency, sought to destroy the human psyche as well as the human spirit . . . . The humiliation and degradation suffered by these women is irreparable.” It was the first class-action sexual harassment lawsuit in the country.

In the fall of 2000, while doing research for a Washington Monthly article about the ongoing destruction of mountaintops in Appalachia to mine coal, Bingham got so outraged that she decided to tell the story visually, with helicopter fly-overs, as a documentary. So, “though I had no idea how to make a movie,” she set about to create The Last Mountain, (2011, available on DVD). Of the activists she met in Appalachia, she says, “There aren’t a lot of people you meet these days who really have their lives on the line, fighting for change. I just couldn’t get over how articulate and funny and passionate all the people were that I met, especially the environmental activists in the film—so driven to try to change the status quo—so angry and right and brave and heroic, each one of them.”

the-last-mountain-011What mountaintop removal looks like (from The Last Mountain). Photo by J. Henry Fair

Now she’s at work on the book Witness at the Revolution, a first-person narrative of Vietnam antiwar activists in the years 1969 and ’70—“such a tumultuous, revolutionary time: there was Kent State, the Weather Underground, moratoriums, Woodstock . . .” The book will have no narration, just the words of the interviewees. “I’m drawn to telling first-person stories,” Bingham says. So far, her interview-count tops 90, with more to come.

Clara Bingham, reporter, went into the family business; the Binghams of Louisville, Kentucky, had owned the morning Louisville Courier-Journal and the afternoon Louisville Times for three generations. Though she moved to New York at age 5, she went back to Louisville on holidays and summer after summer, interning in the newsrooms of both papers and in the family’s TV station. Then, in 1986, the year after her college graduation, her family sold the papers to the Gannett chain. “I could no longer plan to go back and work on the papers,” she says regretfully. “And I really loved them; the Courier-Journal was a beacon of great journalism—investigative journalism, public-service journalism. It won a lot of Pulitzers and was a training ground for many reporters who went on to bigger papers in bigger cities, as well as editors who were determined to cover stories that weren’t necessarily popular, to help give voice to people who didn’t have a voice.”

Twenty years later, the Courier-Journal’s solid reputation in eastern Kentucky smoothed Bingham’s entree into the community of anti-mountaintop-removal activists she was to feature in The Last Mountain. (Between high-school graduation and the start of that documentary she studied history at Harvard, worked as a White House correspondent for Newsweek, and wrote two books and many magazine articles.) “When I got to eastern Kentucky, the people I met had all grown up reading the Courier-Journal and were excited to meet me,” she says. “Because the Courier-Journal had spent a lot of energy trucking the paper into the ‘hollers’ all over eastern Kentucky, it was an important publication for people who lived there.”

How does a writer “fly up” to the role of film producer? “I know people who know how to make movies,” Bingham says. She chose an old college friend, Bill Haney, who had made documentaries and feature films, as her director and co-producer. To raise money she went “cup in hand” to environmentalists and friends and relatives and acquaintances. She“partnered up” with Robert Kennedy Jr., a passionate opponent of mountaintop-removal mining, who tells much of the story in the film.

the-last-mountain-016Robert Kennedy Jr. and fellow anti-mountaintop-removal activists in Charleston, West Virginia. (Photo, Eric Grunebaum, from The Last Mountain)

She became the jack-of-all-trades that a documentary producer needs to be—not only raising funds but also researching, interviewing, editing. To enlist interviewees, she traveled the mountains and hollows of West Virginia with whistleblower Jack Spadaro, a mining engineer who, during the George W. Bush administration, complained that a federal coal-slurry-spill investigation had been cut short—leading to a government whitewash. He was demoted and transferred from his job as head of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy. “At that stage,” Bingham notes, “Jack had become an Appalachian folk hero. He knew some of the activists who had begun to resist the pollution that the coal companies were visiting on their towns and forests and mountains.”

By helicopter she witnessed—and shows dramatically in the movie—forest-covered ridges turned into appalling moonscapes. On her journeys through the hollows she saw the destruction close up. “Towns were boarded up. People were leaving, or living with diseases due to overexposure to coal dust and polluted water from the coal mines.” She learned about the thousands of “impoundments” (lakes of toxic sludge) created by the mining process. The film focuses on a particularly dangerous one, poised on a bluff in Marsh Fork, West Virginia, looming over an elementary school. Local residents were trying (fruitlessly, it seemed) to have the school rebuilt elsewhere.

“I was so startled and shocked by the devastation that I came away from that trip feeling that mountaintop-removal coal mining was one of the greatest atrocities going on in America,” she says, “And because it was happening in Appalachia, nobody cared. I made it my mission to make a documentary about mountaintop removal.”

The film is riveting. The activists do seem like Davids as they straggle along the narrow highways carrying placards; stand up to sheriffs ready to arrest them; point to the once-green, bare brown peaks towering over them, the displaced boulders resting in front yards, the clogged streams, the flood damage, the epidemic of brain damage in one town, the coal dust coating the sides of an elementary school. How to judge the film’s impact? “I have no idea how to measure impact of these sorts of movies,” Bingham says. “It just adds to the conversation, educates, sensitizes people who otherwise might not be aware or interested.” (When the film was released, Vanity Fair’s Michael Schnayerson nominated this “searing new documentary”—and Robert Kennedy and Clara Bingham—to the magazine’s Hall of Fame).

Since work on The Last Mountain began, the courts, activists’ pressure, and government action have produced a few positive changes on the mountaintop-removal front:

  • The activists in Marsh Fork got their new school, built away from that dangerous site beneath the sludge impoundment. (But the coal company paid only 1/5 of the cost.)
  • The largest coal ash impoundment in the U.S.—the site in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, featured in the movie (it contains 20 billion gallons of coal ash and smokestack scrubber waste) has been ordered by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to be closed and capped and mostly contained by its owner three years earlier than the company first proposed.
  • In February 2014 a federal court struck down a controversial George W. Bush Administration rule that opened up Appalachia’s streams and waterways to toxic dumping from destructive mountaintop removal mining operations. According to earthjustice.org, “mountaintop removal mining has buried an estimated 2,400 miles of Appalachian streams and polluted many more miles of waterways.”
  • In early June, the Obama administration announced a proposal to significantly cut carbon pollution from power plants.

And yet . . .

Coal River Mountain, in West Virginia, the “last mountain” of Bingham’s film, has not remained pristine; there are three different mine operations ongoing, and the wind farm which the film’s activists proposed as an alternative source of energy has not been built. Rob Goodwin of Coal River Mountain Watch reports, “Since the film, mining has continued on several hundred acres of Coal River Mountain. . . . Coal River Mountain Watch has recently uncovered proposals to mine an additional 2,000 acres of Coal River Mountain, close to communities in the Marsh Fork area.” Indeed, just last week, “three activists with Mountain Justice and Radical Action for Mountains and People’s Survival (RAMPS) are currently stopping business as usual at Alpha Natural Resources headquarters in Bristol . . . protesting the opening of new mines on Coal River Mountain in southern West Virginia. Two protestors are locked in front of the front doors of the office, while a third is hanging from a flag pole displaying a banner that reads ‘Save Coal River Mountain,” noted a press release from RAMPS.

When Bingham told me that Coal River Mountain was being mined despite the concerted opposition, I found myself saying, with a feeling of helplessness, “What can the rest of us do?”

I was met with a quick and firm response: “Everyone can do something, because every time you turn on the light it’s burning coal. Average individuals can conserve, try to use alternative energy, be more mindful of how they use energy, and do much more. There are all sorts of amazing national organizations to support, like the Sierra Club. You can give them money. You can support and volunteer with grassroots organizations like Coal River Mountain Watch and Appalachian Voices that are fighting this on the ground—being watchdogs, suing, doing everything they can to make the coal companies pay for the destruction they cause. [Bingham is on the Appalachian Voices board.] Politically it’s a big issue: people have got to be more aware of what’s going on. They can join letter-writing campaigns, help elect the right officials, ones who aren’t paid for by he coal companies. There are lots of things to do.”

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