Michael O'Connell's Mountain Top Removal raised awareness of coal mining practices
16 JUL 2008 • by Matt Saldaña
When Al Gore presented Pittsboro, N.C., filmmaker Michael O'Connell with the award for best documentary at this year's
Nashville Film Festival, he didn't just rattle off a prepared speech and smile for the photo-op. The former vice president,
once berated for his lack of visible emotion, nearly choked up onstage as he recalled the plight of Ed Wiley, the protagonist
in Mountain Top Removal, O'Connell's film about a devastating method of coal mining in Southern Appalachia.
Click for larger image • Filmmaker Michael O'Connell at his home in Pittsboro
Photo by Jeremy M. Lange
"I was telling Ed that his campaign to get a new school, because of the terrible impact of mountaintop removal, is
really part and parcel of the same kind of struggle that I and others have been involved in, to try to get a solution to the
global climate crisis," Gore said, before inviting Wiley onstage. "It's the same fight, really."
He added: "You can tell I feel strongly about this, and have for a long time, but the feelings I'm expressing here
were really evoked, in a significant way, by this film."
Mountain Top Removal focuses largely on the story of Wiley, who walks from West Virginia to Washington, D.C., to demand
that his granddaughter's school be moved from its precarious position directly beneath a mountaintop removal site in Marsh
Fork, W. Va. The town's elementary school sits a few hundred yards under an artificial lake containing 2.8 billion gallons
of "coal slurry," the toxic by-product released after dynamiting mountain peaks and separating coal from the core.
(An industry spokesman in the film describes slurry as "nothing more than dirt and rock," though samples contain
toxic levels of arsenic, lead and mercury. Massey Energy—the company that owns the Marsh Fork mine—agreed
in 2008 to a $20 million settlement for more than 4,500 violations of the Clean Water Act.)
O'Connell spent 15 months, with no crew and—with the exception of roughly $11,500 in contributions—a
self-funded budget, documenting the lives of West Virginians who have stood up against a well-entrenched coal industry. The
director, who grew up in suburban Virginia and began his entertainment career mixing sound at a prominent D.C. jazz club,
moved to North Carolina nearly 20 years ago to become a soundman for UNC-TV, where he now edits film. He took his technical
experience, coupled with a childhood fondness for nature and a passion for civil rights, to the mountains of West Virginia
"I just showed up as a journalist and started looking around. I met these people, saw what they were doing, and it
unfolded very naturally," he says in an interview with the Indy.
His most important discovery, perhaps, was Wiley, whose indignation pours through the movie frames.
"I just went with my intuition," O'Connell says. "It wasn't a lot of, 'Oh, well this guy's not going to
work or that guy's not going to work.' It was, 'Holy smokes, look at these people. Look what's going on here.' When Ed said,
'I'm going to walk to D.C.,' I was struggling with which direction to take—legal, environmental, people, humanities,
the school. When he said that, I got off the phone, and turned to my wife and said, 'He just solved our problem.'"
After garnering public support on his walk to D.C., Wiley and other activists returned to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin's
office to demand action, and O'Connell filmed a six-hour standoff that ended with police officers dragging off protesters,
including a defiant 90-year-old woman who says, "I'm ready to die. Are you?"
In an interview from his home in West Virginia, Wiley says he didn't harp on the dramatic action of Mountain Top Removal,
though he says every time he watched the film he was "moved."
"You just got to let it pass you. You can't sit there and put yourself up on a pedestal and think you're going to
shine, because you're not. You've got to keep moving forward. You've got to get it done."
He adds: "The story, with the children—people care about the environment, people really love the environment,
but when you're trying to save these kids' lives and they're breathing chemicals and in danger every single day, it's a different
kind of worry. You want it to end."
Wiley says he opened up to O'Connell, not surprisingly, because he trusted the filmmaker's dedication to the project.
"Mike put a lot of time in it," he says. "I'm not sure what his budget was, but I know it was real low,
compared to what some people had. ... He stuck it out. He put his heart in it, and I've seen that. He cares."
Independent film producer Gill Holland, who signed on as an executive producer after seeing an early cut of Mountain Top
Removal, describes the film as a "tragically good story."
"He did it right," Holland says of O'Connell, in an interview. "He green-lit himself and saved money by
doing everything. And since he is a quintessentially talented filmmaker, it was successful."
Country musician Kathy Mattea, a West Virginia native whose latest album, Coal, explores the history of coal mining in
her home state, met O'Connell and watched the film at the Nashville Film Festival. She hosted a second screening in Nashville
"I was inspired by his getting into the story and trying to help give voice to the people who are living through
this," she says in an interview from her home in Nashville.
"It's so hidden, and so remote, that it's very easy to be overlooked," she says. "That's the power of this
film. That gives me a lot of hope. I really think that what's going on in the coal fields is going to play out into the civil
rights movement of my time."
Mattea says she was "touched" that someone who grew up near D.C. and lived in North Carolina would choose to
document coal towns in West Virginia. But already, the film has had a national impact. In addition to the award presented
by Gore, Mountain Top Removal has earned top prizes at film festivals in North Carolina and California. In May, N.C. Rep.
Pricey Harrison, motivated in part by O'Connell's documentary, introduced legislation that would make it illegal for North
Carolina power plants to burn coal derived from mountaintop removal.
"The fact that we're the second-largest consumers of that coal will make the legislation an uphill battle,"
Harrison says in an interview. "But I think having Mike's documentary, and other media attention on the issue, might
get people a little more sensitive to the issue of where their energy comes from. Right now you feel kind of removed from
it. But once you see the documentary, you realize, wow, I'm running my air-conditioning at 68 and ... these communities are
being destroyed in West Virginia."
Thirty Tigers Press release for Kathy Mattea Screening
June 25 2008
KATHY MATTEA HOSTS
MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL SCREENING
Nashville, TN- Musician and activist Kathy Mattea will serve as host for a
showing of Michael O'Connell's award-winning film, Mountain Top Removal, Thursday, July 10th at 5:30pm at The Basement
in Nashville. Mattea recently
viewed the film at the Nashville Film Festival and was moved by the scenes of environmental destruction wrought in her
native West Virginia by the coal
mining technique called mountain top removal. Says Mattea, "You must see
this to believe it. I am saddened that we've progressed to a point where we think this is an acceptable practice. Michael
O'Connell's film gives voice to those that have no multi-million dollar PR firm to tell their
story. The visuals are gut-wrenching--there are no words to describe the devastation."
The film recently won the 2008 Reel Current Award from former Vice-President
Al Gore, this years Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary AN INCONVENIENT
TRUTH. The award was presented
to OConnell at the 2008 Nashville Film Festival, where the film was shown to a capacity crowd. In addition to that prestigious
honor, the film has
also won First Prize at the Charlotte Film Festival, First Prize at the Mion Solutions Environmental Film Awards, and
the Jury Award at the Wild and Scenic Film Festival.
"It's a story of personal determination and courage," Gore told an assembled audience of festival attendees
and media members. "It's also a story about the terrible impact on families in the communities that are victimized by
the way in which the coal is being removed from the tops of mountains in Appalachia. This film really brings out the human
dimensions of this because you see it through the eyes of a family that's greatly affected and you feel
it in the emotions of a small town that has really been hurt a lot."
Mattea's recent album,COAL, serves as a meditation on her family roots in the coal country of West Virginia. Recorded
as a tribute to my place and my people,; the album features her take on classic mining songs from Hazel Dickens, Jean Ritchie,
Merle Travis and others to paint a nuanced portrait, exploring the tragedy that often comes from life in the mines while paying
respects to the strength and humility that provides a bedrock foundation to
the community. She will be introducing the movie and speaking briefly about the impact of mountain top removal that she
has witnessed firsthand.
Filmmaker O'Connell will also be in attendance and will be answering questions after the film.
The Basement is located at 1604 8th Ave. South in Nashville. Go to
www.thebasementnashville.com <http://www.thebasementnashville.com> for
This event is free and open to the public.
For more information contact Traci Thomas @ Thirty Tigers 615-664-1167 or
NASHVILLE, Tennesee -- April 19, 2008 -- Al Gore, former Vice-President, Nobel Peace Prize Winner and the subject of the Academy
Award winning documentary AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, presented the 2008 REEL CURRENT AWARD yesterday to MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL,
Michael O'Connell's revealing look at mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia. The presentation took place at the Regal
Green Hills Cinemas in the Green Hills section of the city where the Festival is taking place.
"It's a story of personal determination and courage," he told an assembled audience of festival goers and members
of the media. "It's also a story about the terrible impact on families in the communities that are victimized by the
way in which the coal is being removed from the tops of mountains in Appalachia. This film really brings out the human dimensions
of this because you see it through the eyes of a family that's greatly affected and you feel it in the emotions of a small
town that has really been hurt a lot."
Gore was particularly taken with two of the subjects of the film, Ed Wiley and his granddaughter Kayla Taylor, who joined
O'Connell and the film's producers Gill Holland and Augusta Brown Holland at the presentation.
"(Mountain top removal mining) kills the prospect for Kayla and her generation to have the same kind of beautiful
place to live and the same healthy place to live, and all for what?" he asked. "Because the amount of money being
made by this, it goes up to the top of the income ladder. Now, there are a lot of jobs associated with it, but when it's gone,
those jobs are gone, too. It's mostly done by these big machines now anyway, and the people are not benefiting economically,
and they're certainly being hurt in terms of their health and their whole outlook, and the one thing different I like about
this particular film is that it really does allow the audience to connect with the emotions of these different families as
they go through this."
Gore added that Wiley's struggle in the film to get a new school for his granddaughter "is really part and parcel
of the same type of struggle that I and many others have been involved in trying to get solutions to the climate crisis.
"It's the same fight really, because today, all around the world, we will collectively put another 70 million tons
of CO2 in the earth's atmosphere, and the majority of it comes from burning coal without any thought to the consequences for
future generations, or any thought of the consequences for us now."
MOUNTAIN TOP REMOVAL screens at the Festival on Wednesday, April 23 at 6:45 and again on Thursday, April 24 at 4:00 p.m.
The film is also screening as part of an Earth Day celebration at Lincoln Center in New York City on Sunday, April 20.
The REEL CURRENT Award winner is chosen and presented each year by Al Gore to a documentary at NaFF that provides extraordinary
insight into a contemporary global issue. Last year's winner was Jennifer Baichwal's MANUFACTURED LANDSCAPES.
Filming efforts to save the Appalachians in Mountain Top Removal
Misty mountain hopes
19 MAR 2008 • by Neil Morris
Landscape without mountain, a common sight in the Appalachians.
Photo courtesy of Haw River Films
Mike O'Connell's introduction to coal mining culture came at an early age and in a most inauspicious way.
"Growing up in Reston, Va., my family and I would often travel on the weekends to West Virginia," remembers
O'Connell. "When I was about 8 years old, we were visiting the Capon Bridge area, and I remember hearing people discussing
how a person's house had been dynamited to make way for a coal mine. That story always stayed with me."
When O'Connell, now a burgeoning filmmaker, began looking for a new project several years ago, he recalled both that incident
and news accounts about an insidious new form coal mining known as mountain top removal (MTR). O'Connell's research eventually
led to him to the Mountain Justice Summer activist group and, eventually, West Virginia's Coal River valley. There, over the
course of two years, O'Connell filmed the beleaguered citizens who comprise the core of his documentary, Mountain Top Removal,
which will be screened Thursday, March 20, at the Central Carolina Community College (CCCC) campus in Pittsboro.
Among those featured are a man fighting to force the state to build a new elementary school away from a nearby coal-slurry
pond ("None of the teachers' children attend the school," observes O'Connell), a woman living on land she cannot
sell because the well water is polluted, and a town trying to preserve its history and geography against an encroaching MTR
"Being around those people was so inspiring," says O'Connell. "They are fighting for their lives and homes
against this destructive form of mining. I have been to former strip mining sites that are over 50 years old, and trees will
grow back there. However, [MTR] actually changes the geology of the area and cuts off the tops of mountain peaks. Those do
not grow back."
Although MTRs date back to the 1970s, O'Connell says recent policies and administrative rulings have caused a proliferation
of the practice during the past eight years. "When I was filming in West Virginia, the feeling I got was that the pace
of MTR was rapidly increasing, almost as if the coal companies were trying to get what they could while the [Bush] administration
is in office."
An incident last month illustrates this point. Mountain Top Removal was invited to screen at a film festival in Ljublajna,
Slovenia. However, upon landing in Slovenia, O'Connell learned that U.S. officials, apparently after taking a closer look
at his film's content, had attempted to withdraw a government travel grant before festival organizers intervened on his behalf.
O'Connell got his early audio/ video training decades ago in Washington, D.C., while working at "Blue Alley,"
a venerable dinner and jazz nightclub in Georgetown. "Back then, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Getz and Sarah Vaughn would play
there, and they usually didn't bring their own light-and-sound crew, so I got to work up-close with all these greats."
After moving to Pittsboro in 1990, O'Connell spent 15 years working as a staff photographer for UNC-TV before venturing
into independent filmmaking. His first project, GrassRoots Stages, spent a brief run on PBS.
Since the film's first screening (also at CCCC, where he paid $300 to rent the facility), O'Connell has shown his film
worldwide, most recently at the Cleveland International Film Festival. It won the award for Best Documentary at last year's
Charlotte Film Festival, and it has been nominated for a Reel Current Award at next month's Nashville Film Festival, where
the winner will be selected and presented by Al Gore.
The final cut of the film now includes a narration by actor William Mapother (Lost; In The Bedroom). This time, the CCCC
screening will carry a $5 ticket price will benefit the effort to build the new elementary school in West Virginia. "And,"
quips O'Connell, "I don't have to pay rent this time."
For more information, go to www.hawriverfilms.com.
Film Clips | Judith Egerton
Documentary director shines light on coal mining industry
By Judith Egerton • email@example.com • January 28, 2008
If you think coal-mining has nothing to do with you, think again.
All of us who consume water and use electricity have a direct relationship with the miners and the companies that produce
Cinematographer and director Michael Cusack O'Connell of Pittsboro, N.C., has made a documentary that makes the connection
indisputably vivid. He'll be in Louisville Thursday night to show his film and talk about it.
"Mountain Top Removal," a fundraising presentation by and for the nonprofit Louisville Film Society, examines
the costs and consequences of mountaintop removal mining on the people, mountains and culture of southern Appalachia.
The 74-minute documentary will be screened at 6 p.m. at the Clifton Center, 2117 Payne St. Admission is $10.
Shot over two years, the film follows citizens and conservation groups as they oppose the coal industry's methods and
the toxic waste produced in the process of stripping the Appalachian mountaintops.
The film features Jeff Goodell, author of the best-seller "Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our
Faith," about the nine trapped Quecreek miners, as well as conservationists, geologists, West Virginia Coal Association
President Bill Raney, President George W. Bush, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and others.
O'Connell is a two-time Emmy Award winner for his cinematography work on "Watch Me Play," a history of women's
professional basketball, and "AMA-Zone," a children's program about the Amazon rain forest.
"Mountain Top Removal" won the best documentary award at last year's Charlotte (N.C.) Film Festival and the
Jury Prize at The Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Nevada City, Calif., considered the world's largest environmental film
festival. The executive producers of the documentary were Augusta and Gill Holland of Louisville.
On the Web: www.louisvillefilm.org.
Review by Steve Fesenmaier
Graffti Magazine Dec 19 2006
Removal- a new film from North Carolina
Michael C. O’Connell
of Haw River Films has created an excellent new
film about the environmental devastation known as “mountaintop removal
mining.” In less than an hour a viewer sees both the pro and con, the
natives who are affected and the New York City writers who all have very
definite opinions about the American way of producing electricity.
of the best things about this film is that pro-coal experts like
Bill Raney, the president of the WV Coal Association, have their say –
and experts tell viewers the scientific truths which directly contradict
This film is a welcome addition to other environmental films on
including Robert Gates’ two films, “All Shaken Up” and “Mucked,” Sasha
Water’s “Razing Appalachia,” Catherine Pancake’s “Black Diamonds,”
“Moving Mountains” by Pa. school kids and B.J. Gudmundsson and Allen
Johnson’s “Mountain Mourning.” I know of three other films on the
subject that I look forward to watching.
There is an impressive list of experts including the well-known
activists Larry Gibson, Julia Bonds, Maria Gunnoe, Allen Johnson and Ed
Wiley, the grandfather of a girl who attends Marsh Fork Elementary. The
experts include Jeff Goodell who wrote the cover story for the NY Times
Sunday magazine and then “Big Coal,” Dr. Ben Stout, a Ph.D. from
Wheeling Jesuit University, Dr. Schiffin from Williamson, a MD who cares
for the residents injured by the pollution caused there by MTR, and Dr.
Peter Huff from Duke. These interviews add great weight to the argument
that the people of Appalachia are truly losing their health and
environment in horrible ways not described by Mr. Raney.
The single biggest hero of this film is Ed Wiley who is shown meeting
with Gov. Manchin and marching from Charleston to Washington, DC to
promote awareness of what is happening to his grandchild and all of the
children attended the threatened grade school. The next biggest hero is
Larry Gibson who is shown leading a march to a second family cemetery
already surrounded by the huge MTR site so well known to activists. I
have not seen it before, but the large group that had to walk over
company land to gain access to the second family cemetery is a truly
poignant reminder of what is being lost.
Several other pro-MTR people are also interviewed including one
says that it is dangerous for “outsiders” to “interfere.” His comments
really reminded me of the people interviewed for “Eyes on the Prize” and
other Sixties documentaries on the race war that engulfed the South. One
activist indeed talks about the “all out war” that is now taking place
in Appalachia – and thanks to publications such as Vanity Fair, The US
News (both criticized by Raney), the NY Times and many other national
publications and all of the films on MTR, national and international
awareness is finally being achieved.
I particularly enjoyed the soundtrack of this film that includes
by Donna the Buffalo, Julie Miller, John Specker and Sarah Hawkes.
Hopefully Haw River Films will release it as a CD. This is no accident
since they earlier produced a film, “Grass Roots Stages” about a large
number of musicians including Donna the Buffalo (who recently visited
Charleston.) Other films they have produced include “Art in Motion,”
Tim Thornton Roanoke Times Feb 13 2007
It's a straightforward documentary with a straightforward title:
"Mountain Top Removal."
It ties more threads more tightly together than perhaps any other film account of mountaintop removal coal mining.
People familiar with the subject will see many familiar faces. Julia Bonds, the
Coal River Valley resident and 2003 recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, an international prize honoring grass-roots
environmentalists, is here. So is Allen Johnson, co-founder of Christians for the Mountains.
Ed Wiley, who confronted West Virginia's governor and then marched from Charleston to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness
of the threat a coal mine and sludge pond pose to his granddaughter's elementary school, plays a big role. So does Maria Gunnoe,
who says 5 acres of her family's land have been washed away since a mountaintop removal mine increased the frequency and intensity
of flooding by a nearby creek.
Larry Gibson, whose family land on Kayford Mountain is surrounded by mountaintop removal coal mines, is prominent. So is Carmilita
Brown, whose well was contaminated by a mountaintop removal operation.
The pro-mining forces get their say, but they definitely land on the short end of that stick. It's up to viewers to decide
whether the filmmakers or the weakness of their pro-coal arguments are the reason.
Viewers with a quick eye will spy Blacksburg activist Erin McKelvey
and some coal cars manufactured at the old East End Shops in Roanoke.
Jeff Goddell, author of "Big Coal," admits that he didn't know anything about the situation in Appalachia until The New York
Times Magazine sent him into West Virginia in 2001.
"Like many Americans, until that moment, I didn't ever realize we still burned coal," Goddell tells the camera.
He thought that went out with top hats and corsets, Goddell says.
But the best lines come from Wiley. "It don't grow back," he says
of a decapitated mountains.
And from Gibson, who has been fighting the big mining companies for more than two decades.
"They was always hope," he says, standing on his patch of green encircled by blasting and dozers and giant haul trucks. "Cause
that's all I had."
Review by Rich Copley, Mar. 11, 2007
Lexington Herald Leader
Coal mining practices and dangers are shown on the big and small
Mountaintop removal can seem like a distant, incomprehensible issue to
those of us who don't live in Appalachia. But to those directly
affected by the practice, passions run high.
a documentary by North Carolina filmmaker Michael C. O'Connell, illuminates the topic in compelling fashion by telling
the stories of people directly affected by the mining method.
The film gives voice to both sides of the issue, although it comes
firmly on the anti-mountaintop removal side. That's illustrated by one
segment in which a representative of the West Virginia Coal Producers
Association, Bill Raney, insists there's nothing wrong with coal
slurries, one of the after-effects of mountaintop removal. He is
immediately followed by Ben Stout of Wheeling Jesuit University, who
enumerates the toxins, including arsenic, in slurries that seep into
You have to wonder whether Raney knew that every one of his statements
would be contradicted with overwhelming evidence when he granted the
interview. The scads of people speaking in opposition to mountaintop
removal and the coal companies include West Virginia residents affected
by the practice and scientists and journalists who have taken up the
Does the coal industry come across badly because of the filmmakers'
agenda, or is their position that indefensible? Viewers will have to
If the issue seemed a bit amorphous before seeing the film, it is much
more concrete after. And it's worth a look at the Central Library
Theatre at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday. The screening is free.