From the Ashes is the critically-acclaimed documentary exploring the history of the US coal industry. Directed by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Michael Bonfiglio and produced by RadicalMedia company in partnership with Bloomberg Philanthropies, the film captures american communities struggling to deal with the country’s coal-mining legacy and explores the affects of coal on environment, economy and public health. 

“We wanted to make something that addressed the intense emotions and competing motivations on multiple sides”, says Michael Bonfiglio, the director of From the Ashes. “It was important to us that our film could inform people about the real issues and spark a fact-based dialogue about an industry at a major crossroads. Essentially the question now is this: Do we continue to invest in a 19th century form of energy production that has clear and present risks — or do we move forward and, if so, what are the options in our energy future?”

Coal and economy

coal industry in the US

source: Washington Post

The future of once most dominant industry of the United States is unclear. In 2015 Obama administration introduced Clean Power Plan that aims at combating climate change by reducing carbon emissions and shifting to renewable energy. However, Trump administration seems to be heading in the opposite direction — the US president has now promised to revive coal industry and bring back coal jobs with a new energy reform. In late March Trump signed an executive order to overhaul the Clean Power Plan. The Union of Concerned Scientists claims that the new executive order will “dismantle, halt, or slow down many climate policies that have been years in the making, including the Clean Power Plan.”

While coal industry is said to be slowly dying, about 30 percent of all energy in the US is still generated by coal. With the expansion of the clean and renewable energy market, coal is currently mined in 26 U.S. states and accounts for at least half of the energy produced in 25 states.The remaining mining jobs are unsafe, yet workers at coal regions fight for them and for the industry. As The New York Times stated, “When you’re unemployed and have to choose between going hungry or taking work that contributes to global warming, well, you have no real choice.”

The documentary describes coal as a “19th century source of fuel being used in the 21st century”. It brings us to the families in Appalachia — the region in the Eastern United States where the large-scale mining for almost 150 years has left the landscape destroyed and the coal communities impoverished. The film takes us down south to Dallas, Texas, west to Wyoming and north to Montana where the states economies as well as the residents are struggling to overcome its dependence on coal industry.

Coal and public health

coal miners

Not only is coal burning responsible for one third of US carbon emissions — the main contributor to climate disruption — but it is also making us sick, leading to as many as 13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in annual health costs. Beyond Coal campaign

Another issue the documentary talks about is public health hazards associated with coal mining. Among the byproducts of coal extraction are mercury, lead, arsenic and uranium, as well as coal ash, slurry and sludge. Mercury and other heavy metals have been linked to both neurological and developmental damage in humans and other animals, states U.S. Energy Information Administration. According to From the Ashes Discussion Guide, “air pollution caused by coal-burning power plants can lead to heart disease, asthma, cancer and other serious health problems. Severe cardiopulmonary conditions, neurological symptoms, birth defects and premature deaths are prevalent in low-income and minority communities close to coal mining operations.”

Since the majority of mine workers and their families tend to reside near the power plants and the coal mining sites, they are especially vulnerable to health risks. What’s more, the poverty rate of people living within one mile of power plant waste facilities is twice as high as the national average and the percentage of non-white populations within one mile is 30 percent higher than the national average, states Clean Air Task Force publication.

Coal and environment

Gillette, Wyoming

“There are three things to know about the state of coal in this country [in the USA]”, says Mary Anne Hitt, the director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign when interviewed for the documentary. “One — the coal industry is never coming back to their former glory, despite all of their promises that they will; second — we are still burning a lot of coal in this country; and third — coal is the most polluting form of the energy on the planet. It’s the biggest contributor to climate change.” Hitt also adds that the coal companies store the mining waste in huge earthen dams and thus hold back billions of gallons of toxic sludge that eventually leaks into people’s wells.

Indeed, there’s nothing clean or sustainable about coal, whether you mine, burn, deposit or transport it. Coal mining damages the soil and often makes it unusable for agriculture. It impairs air quality and causes acid rains and smog. Coal ash (the waste that is left after coal is burned) is another environmental concern. According to From the Ashes, there are about 1,000 coal ash sites with very heavy levels of pollution in the US that end up in water sources on which people are relying. “It’s a ticking time bomb for millions of Americans”, says Bruce Nilles, the senior director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign. The environmental impact of coal mining is so wide-ranging that, as environmentalist Carl Pope comments in the documentary, the coal companies simply cannot afford to clean up and still make coal profitable.

From the Ashes goes beyond describing how outdated and unsustainable coal industry is. It raises an important question of how the coal mining communities can break free from the 19th century source of power and gradually make a shift to cleaner energy that will give people jobs and help reverse climate change. This film is also a great starting point for those who don’t know anything about coal and the economic and environmental issues surrounding it.

Subscribe to WM Daily. Be In Touch With Rebellious Voices