From the Sublime to Destruction: An Introduction to "Overburden" and Interview with Documentarian Chad A. Stevens
On April 5, 2010, a spark ignited methane leaking from 1,000 feet underground at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. The coal dust explosion, which killed 29 men, was the worst in the United States since 1970, when 38 miners were killed at Finley Coal Company’s No. 15 and 16 mines in Hyden, Kentucky. In the dramatic aftermath of the Upper Big Branch disaster, which is captured in Chad A. Stevens’s recent documentary Overburden, a right-wing pro-coal activist fought alongside an avowed environmentalist grandmother to combat the socially and environmentally irresponsible policies of Massey Energy. A state funded independent investigation would eventually find the company culpable for the blast, and its CEO, Don Blankenship, would be convicted in 2015 of willfully conspiring to violate safety standards.
In a recent interview, we discussed with Stevens a range of topics related to Overburden. But first we’ll provide a brief history of coal mining in the U.S., introduce Overburden, and place it within an interdisciplinary environmental studies framework.
The Human and Environmental Costs of Mountaintop Removal
The 1970s oil crisis sparked an increased demand for coal in the United States. To meet the demand, mining companies developed more economical forms of coal mining. Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining that involves razing the mountaintop or ridgeline. Coal seams are extractable only after the mountaintop and ridgeline are stripped of all soil, rock, and vegetation, the overburdenabove the seams.
This process requires the use of explosives and heavy machinery that reduce the need for skilled workers. To cut costs and improve efficiencies further, many mining companies have relied more and more on contract labor, even in West Virginia, which has historically led the country in coal production. West Virginia has also led the country in mine-related deaths and injuries. A study conducted by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that 70 miners were killed on the job in southern West Virginia between 1991-1996, accounting for 28% of all mining fatalities nationwide. That number is particularly high considering that West Virginia employs only 13% of the nation’s miners.
In the 1990s, tighter regulations of the U.S. Clean Air Act forced a sea change among mining operators and their methods, but the surge in the use of mountaintop removal had unintended consequences, solidifying regulations that were supposed to make mining safer. Mountaintop removal was increasingly preferred in part because it was a method that retrieved lower-sulfur—and thus “cleaner”—coal. Public relation teams at coal facilities and companies spun mountaintop removal as “green” mining and garnered significant legislative and popular support. Concurrent to the amendments of the Clean Air and Water acts, the first and second Gulf Wars broke out and stirred public demand for energy independence. The early part of the new millennium saw an expansion of mountaintop removal and new, but similarly devastating, energy extraction methods like fracking.
Remote regions of Appalachia were disproportionately affected by mountaintop removal. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 2,200 square miles of the region were cleared as of 2012. The connection between mountaintop removal and coal mining disasters is simple: the methods employed to obtain coal in mountaintop removal are among the most dangerous. Coal mining accounts for 69% of the total use of explosives in the United States with Kentucky, West Virginia, and Virginia being three of the top five states that purchase the most explosives nationally, totaling 46% of U.S. sales. Because of the use of such destructive practices, Michael Shnayerson described mountaintop removal as “one of the greatest acts of physical destruction this country has ever wreaked upon itself.”
Shnayerson’s quote is not an overstatement: mountaintop removal is meant to decimate all vegetation so that nothing gets in the way of coal extraction. Target lands are clear-cut and the lumber is either sold or burned. Miners use explosives to then blast away the remaining overburden, which is afterward pushed into nearby valleys or hollows. Even lifelong miners find the process difficult. “What they’re doing is not mining,” said Paul Nelson, as quoted in a USA Today article, “it’s total devastation.” To combat the ire generated among residents and tourists when they encounter a deforested and plundered mountain, coal companies generally use hydroseed to regrow nonnative, invasive species like lespedza or Japanese clover, as it is more commonly known. The clover, a drought tolerant weed, is one of but a few species that can survive on sterile, steep, eroded slopes. But it only provides the illusion of healing and regrowth. The full extent of this environmentally devastating picture can be seen in a series of NASA satellite photos taken over two decades between 1984-2010. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency impact statement on mountaintop removal, it may take hundreds of years for a forest to re-establish itself on abandoned mining sites.
Only 45 minutes outside of Charleston, W. Va., Kayford Mountain is the most visited and photographed mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. Mountaintop removal, a process in which coal companies blast mountains layer by layer down to the coal seams and then harvest the coal, has been practiced in the area for decades, sometimes under names like surface mining and area mining.
Deforestation is but one consequence of the mountaintop removal process. Millions of gallons of waste from this process—aptly called sludge or slurry—are stored in open pools held back by earthen dams. In 2002, the Bush Administration changed the definition of “fill material” in the Clean Water Act to include toxic mining waste, which then enabled coal companies to legally dump the “overburden” from stripped mountains into nearby valleys. “Valley fills,” as they are called, have buried more than 2,000 miles of headwater streams and polluted numerous others. In one example, the Martin County coal slurry spill occurred when the bottom of a coal slurry impoundment, also owned by Massey Energy, fell into an abandoned underground mine below. The slurry then bubbled up out of the mine openings sending an estimated 306 million gallons of slurry down to tributaries of the Tug Fork River. By the morning of October 12, 2000, Wolf Creek oozed with black waste, contaminating the water support for more than 27,000 residents. By comparison, this spill was 30 times larger than the Exxon Valdez disaster. The threat of slurry spills as well as a host of other coal mining catastrophes looms large over the communities of Appalachia engaged in the industry, but such disasters have the potential to devastate communities nationally and globally, as elements like water connect seemingly distant locations. As Rachel Carson asserts in Silent Spring, “And so, in a very real and frightening sense, pollution of the groundwater is pollution of water everywhere” (42).
Overburden and the Problem of Solastalgia
Chad A. Stevens’s Overburden tells the story of one West Virginia community’s struggle with the mining industry. Filmed over a period of nearly ten years, the documentary provides an intimate portrait of life in this community, as Stevens follows two women: Betty Harrah, a former coal advocate who turns against the industry after the death of her brother in the 2010 explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch coal mine, and Lorelei Scarbro, a coal miner’s widow who assiduously fights mountaintop removal.
Divided at first, Betty and Lorelei form an unlikely bond as they campaign for stricter safety regulations in mines and ultimately for alternative sources of energy. To fight for the latter, the women join forces with Rory McIlmoil, a policy expert who proposes to create a wind farm on Coal River Mountain instead of Massey Energy’s plan to implement mountaintop removal.
In addition to the political and environmental battles captured in Overburden, the documentary seeks to humanize the all too often unseen or misrepresented inhabitants of Appalachia, and depict how environmental catastrophes negatively impact these people physically and psychologically.
Stevens is an award-winning filmmaker, editor, journalist, and teacher, whose body of work focuses on environmental documentary. Stevens was recently nominated for an Emmy Award in New Approaches in Documentary for his collaboration in the Pulitzer Prize-winning documentary, Caught in the Crossfire. He is also the recipient of the Special Merit Award from the Grantham Prize, a Webby award, a win at the SXSW Interactive Festival, and several awards in the Pictures of the Year International and NPPA Best of Photojournalism competitions. His first short film, Leveling Appalachia, won the National Magazine Award for Digital Media and has been used in university curricula across the country. Stevens joined the faculty at the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism in 2009 and recently won a Tanner Award for Undergraduate Teaching. He is a graduate of Western Kentucky University and Ohio University. Overburden is his first feature-length documentary, which environmental writer Bill McKibben called a “powerful testimony to the absurd destruction that coal has brought to the mountains of Appalachia.”
In the film, Lorelei Scarbro emphatically states, “This is not coal mining; this is the rape of Appalachia.” Such rhetoric captures the passion that locals possess when it comes to fighting against (and sometimes for) the coal industry. Scarbro’s evocation of “rape” here also suggests the traumatic effects of environmental destruction on the landscape and its people.
Mountaintop removal in areas such as those featured in Overburdencan lead to several types of environmentally induced psychological distress. Increasingly, social scientists are investigating psychological wellbeing in relation to natural and built environments. Some maintain that our language currently cannot fully explain our ever-changing relationship with local and global environmental change. Glenn Albrecht is at the fore of a movement to create a new lexicon to describe this complex relationship and ultimately to address a range of psychological disorders that are emerging alongside new environmental concerns.
In an article co-authored with a transdisciplinary group of Australian academics, Albrecht notes that while bio-physiological pathologies in humans have been studied in conjunction with human-created environmental factors, psychological pathologies that result from negative environmental changes have not received nearly as much popular or scholarly attention. He distinguishes between somaterratic and pyschoterratic illnesses; the former “threaten physical wellbeing and are caused mainly by living in ecosystems that have been contaminated by pollutants and toxins,” while the latter threaten people’s mental wellbeing by “severing ‘healthy’ links between themselves and their home/territory” (95). Both soma- and psychoterratic responses to “acute stressors such as war, terrorism and natural disasters” have been documented and threated, and yet “many chronic stressors such as drought and changes caused by mining are generally not seen by mental health professionals and social impact assessment models as worthy of attention” (96).
The psychoterratic illness that most concerns Albrecht is “solastalgia”; Albrecht coined this neologism in 2003 and has since popularized the concept by publishing on it widely and even discussing it in a recent TED Talk in Sydney, Australia. “Solastalgia” combines “nostalgia,” a mental disorder “experienced by people who were distant from their home and wanted to return,” and “solace,” a sense of comfort and consolation people typically experience at home: “solastalgia refers to the pain or distress caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the negatively perceived state of one’s home environment” (96). Solastalgia catalyzes a profound loss of “sense of place” although one has not actually left one’s place, and, as a result, people feel homesick while still at home.
Working in opposition to solastalgia, Albrecht has more recently developed the concept of “soliphilia,” which he defines as “the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept, in solidarity and affiliation with others, the political responsibility for the health of the earth, our home.”
In Overburden, we witness both solastalgia and soliphilia. The people of the West Virginia coal mining communities often experience psychoterratic illnesses, particularly solastalgia, because mountaintop removal so irrevocably destroys their home environment that they no longer feel a sense of at-homed-ness and the corresponding sense of solace. Inversely, though, Overburdenreminds us that we can combat the potentially imminent pandemic of solastalgia. Soliphilia can reaffirm a love of place and engender significant social justice efforts. Activists like Betty and Lorelei serve as examples of how seemingly adversarial individuals can band together in the fight for the future health of both local and global environments.
-Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Boston: A Mariner Book, 2002.
-Albrecht, Glenn, Gina-Maree Sartore, Linda Connor, Nick Higginbotham, Sonia Freeman, Brian Kelly, Helen Stain, Anne Tonna, and Georgia Pollard. “Solastalgia: The Distress Caused by Environmental Change.” Australian Psychiatry 15 (2007): 95-98.
-This interview was conducted on February 16, 2016, in Boone, NC.
Chad A. Stevens (director, producer and principal cinematographer)
Cold Mountain Review: Thanks so much for talking with us today.
Chad A. Stevens: It’s my pleasure.
CMR: We’d like to start by talking about the history of Overburden. How did you get interested in the topic initially?
CAS: The idea for the film really began in 2003 when I was teaching at Western Kentucky University and running a workshop with photography students there. These were students who are mostly from Kentucky, but they generally weren’t from eastern Kentucky, so I wanted to take them to the east to see Appalachia. I myself am from Kentucky, but more tobacco country rather than coal country. So this was a new experience for me as well. The purpose of this trip and workshop was to tell a different story about Appalachia, to counter the negative stereotypes that are often unfairly attributed to Appalachia. The media has been a large player in telling that kind of story since the era of LBJ and the War on Poverty. While in eastern Kentucky a friend took me up this long, windy road to the top of a mountain, and I was able to see the effects of mountaintop removal for the first time. Keep in mind that I had grown up in Kentucky and was always aware of environmental issues, but I had no clue that something so horrible was happening in my own state. To see the scale of mountaintop removal was astounding. Thinking in terms of the three-act structure, this would have been my inciting incident, that moment that changed me. I didn’t know what I would do or where this incident would lead, but I was compelled to explore it.
CMR: How did you begin this exploration?
CAS: One of the first things that I did was read a book called Lost Mountain by Erik Reece. This book documents the destruction of one mountain, which is literally called Lost Mountain outside of Hazard, Kentucky. With Overburden, I was initially trying to create the cinematic version of that book, to follow one mountain from the sublime to destruction. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this was a massive undertaking that would take ten years. Over that period of time, the story changed and I changed as well, and the focus of the film shifted from the environment to the community of people living in this environment. If you’re telling any story about destructive forces like this, you have to highlight the community that is experiencing the harmful effects.
CMR: Were there any community members in particular that inspired this shift in focus?
CAS: Meeting Betty, who is featured in the film, was a huge moment for me. Betty is pro coal and her family has worked in mining for generations. But she undergoes a major change after losing her brother in the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster. That’s the pivotal moment in the film, because before meeting Betty, I didn’t have access to that world, to that pro coal perspective. I try to approach everything with empathy, but I didn’t really understand that perspective before meeting Betty and others like her in person. It’s a very difficult community to gain access to.
CMR: Why do you think Betty was willing to open up to you?
CAS: Because her brother died in a mining accident, I think she was willing to be vulnerable, and that accident led her to consider all sides of the issue. Her willingness to share her perspective with me totally changed the film.
CMR: Do you think people in Appalachia, particularly in these coal mining communities, tend to be resistant to opening up to documentarians such as yourself?
CAS: They often are because of the history of the media’s negative representation of Appalachia. The people there are very aware of how they are portrayed in media. As soon as I’m seen there with a camera, people associate me with that kind of media, even when they don’t know what my perspective is. Simultaneously, you have a conflict over mountaintop removal that was intensifying at the exact moment that I was there filming.
CMR: How were you able to break through these issues and gain access to the communities?
CAS: It’s really a matter of time. I joke that you have to be crazy to work on a single project for ten years, but that is the very thing that allowed me to develop relationships with the people in the communities. I couldn’t have built the trust and gained the access without that time. Trust can transfer like links in a chain. Because I had the trust of Lorelei and she had connections with Betty, they essentially told others that I was okay and that opened other doors. I can’t imagine cold-calling the family of someone who passed away in a mining disaster. But because I was already a presence in the community and had established a foundation of trust, I was able to gain access, not all of the time, but sometimes during really tense dramatic situations. This, I hope, made it possible to get the real story of these people’s lives.
CMR: Before making the film, how did you define Appalachia, and has making the film altered that definition?
CAS: My initial perception of eastern Kentucky was that of an outsider because I didn’t grow up in the mountainous part of the state. I knew enough to know that the stereotypes weren’t the whole story, but I hadn’t spent enough time there to know what the real story was.
CMR: Can you give us an example of a particular idea about the region that has changed?
CAS: I wondered how people who are so connected to the land, the commons you could say, could work a job that is destroying that very place. I still struggle with that question to some degree, but through Betty and others, I began to understand how few options these people have to provide for their families. People often do what they have to do to make a better life for the next generation. There is a biological imperative to do that. As long as the destruction is not affecting your immediate space, the place where you live, then it can be easy to look away from the larger damage that is being done to the environment. It’s a very privileged perspective to not understand or accept why people engage in coal mining despite the fact that it destroys the place they love. Once you meet these people and understand the circumstances of their lives, it becomes clear that there are often complex reasons for their support of coal.
During a Memorial Day ceremony at a family cemetery on Kayford Mountain, Hillary Hosta, an anti-mountaintop removal activist from Ottawa, ON, carries a young bird found on the path to the 300-year-old cemetery that can only be accessed with permission of the coal company.
CMR: Do you think people are transitioning away from supporting coal? We see Betty in part make this transition in the film, but how widespread is this experience? There seems to remain a deep sense of ambivalence in the communities. Do you think that ambivalence will continue as we increasingly understand both the human and environmental costs of mountaintop removal?
CAS: Unfortunately, a lot of people are digging in their heals and perpetuating this false narrative in which they blame Obama and the EPA for targeting coal with regulations, resulting in lower prices and lower demand for coal. In reality, these things are determined by the market. Fracking, for instance, has driven down the demand for coal. But the false narrative continues, because it’s really hard for people, including Betty, to disavow the coal industry completely when so many members of their family rely on it. You speak out against the industry, and your family members could lose their jobs. The unions have been broken, so there’s no line of defense.
CMR: Would you call yourself an activist documentarian?
CAS: Earlier in my career, I would have said yes without hesitation. And I would still probably say yes, but I now realize it’s very complicated. First of all, I don’t believe in objectivity in documentary work. As humans, we all have perspectives and we’re lying to ourselves if we think we can totally disconnect from that. It’s more productive to be transparent and say where you’re coming from. At the same time, I don’t want my work to necessarily take a particular stance on an issue. In Overburden, I want to pose questions. So many activist environmental films consist of exposition and lecture, and they become a spectator experience rather than a participatory experience for the audience. I think viewers should engage with documentaries and then come to conclusions on their own.
CMR: But Overburden follows Lorelei, a woman who believes the coal industry has vast negative ramifications for Appalachia. Throughout the film, she crusades against the industry, particularly the practice of mountaintop removal. Don’t you think the film persuades viewers to empathize with Lorelei and thus to accept her position on the issue of mountaintop removal?
CAS: Yes, I hope the viewers do empathize with Lorelei. And I see how they could easily adopt her position on the issue, especially when faced with the documentation of the destruction caused by mountaintop removal. But at the same time, I think it’s the presence and impact of Betty in the film that I hope challenges the audience. I’ve had many people approach me after screenings to tell me that they could never imagine connecting with someone who held the beliefs that Betty holds. But they did. And I think that’s where the power of film and story comes in. They are able to transcend the expectations and stereotypes and see people for who they are.
CMR: Overburden focuses on two women. Was it a conscious choice to highlight women’s role in the struggle with the coal industry, or was it just a coincidence that your two main characters are women?
CAS: One of the most striking details that I learned early on in the project was that it was primarily women who were leading the anti-mountaintop removal movement. There are some exceptions of course, but it was the mothers and grandmothers of these communities who were speaking out against the coal industry. If you go back in history and look at the mine wars or the fight to unionize or the various environmental movements, you find that often times mothers and grandmothers are the first to stand up and fight.
CMR: Can you say more about how technology impacts the way you communicate these kinds of stories? You initially were a photographer and then transitioned to filmmaking, and now you’re doing a lot of multimedia work. Do you tell stories differently when using different technologies?
CAS: A lot of the multimedia work that I’ve done has been part of teaching and collaborating at UNC with undergraduates and graduate students as well as other professors. Telling stories is often collaborative, and interactive; multimedia platforms allow people to work together in ways that were not possible before. We no longer have to rely on a handful of broadcast companies. Affordable technologies as well as, of course, the internet, have made it possible for all kinds of people to tell their stories and to reach very diverse audiences.
CMR: Did you consider creating Overburden as more of a multimedia project rather than the documentary that it ended up being?
Only 45 minutes outside of Charleston, W. Va., Kayford Mountain is the most visited and photographed mountaintop removal site in West Virginia. Mining operations continue around the clock as the largely mechanized process can harvest massive amounts of coal each day.
CAS: I was hesitant at first to make Overburden in the model of a traditional documentary. I wondered whether I could do the film in a new way. With every project, I try to imagine what the most effective way will be to tell that specific story. And in the case of Overburden, it seemed that a feature-length film was the best way to tell that story. When I began this film, I thought it would be a short film, but I loosened the reigns over time and realized that I needed the longer form to tell the story of these communities. From here forward, though, I’ll probably return to a more interactive, multimedia approach.
CMR: You’ve said that filmmaking for you is a process of sculpting and distilling. Do you think this part of the craft can be taught?
CAS: When you watch a really great film or read a really great novel, sometimes you think that the final product is the only way the story could have ended up. But in teaching the craft of storytelling, you realize that a story can be told in a thousand different ways. In the classroom, we talk incessantly about how to structure a story. Technology alters the way stories can be told, but the importance of structuring a story cannot be underestimated. The skills of sculpting and distilling lead to good storytelling regardless of the medium.
CMR: Critics often argue that it’s difficult for documentaries to have any real-world impact because they are primarily seen by fairly well-educated liberals. Thus, documentarians tend to preach to choir. But Overburden clearly has the potential for community engagement given how important the issues are in these people’s lives. Have you taken any steps to ensure that the documentary is seen by a broader audience than the one that typically views documentaries?
CAS: People are becoming increasingly more aware of this issue. For instance, every grant that I applied for had to have a very strong outreach and engagement component to it. I’m still trying to figure this out for Overburden, because I really want to bring as much back to the community as possible. It’s nice to be in film festivals, but to have any real impact, the film has to go beyond the film festival. We’re currently working to create a robust educational screening program both at the college and high school levels. I’m working with a production company right now that will help us develop a curriculum to go along with the documentary.
CMR: What projects do you plan to work on next?
CAS: I am overwhelmed with ideas, but simultaneously, having just finished this decade-long project, I can’t yet fathom taking a step on another long journey. I need time to recharge, and in that time I plan to work my hardest to get the film into schools. I believe it’s in that space that documentary storytelling can have real impact.