By Christine Kearney
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A contentious U.S. debate over mountaintop removal coal mining is making its way to movie theaters in a documentary that its makers hope will rouse Americans to action over the environmental effects of "Big Coal".
"The Last Mountain," which opens in U.S. cities throughout June, shows sweeping aerial views of mined Appalachian mountains in West Virginia and settles on a battle by locals and environmentalists to stop mining in Coal River Mountain -- the last intact mountain left untouched in their surrounding area in West Virginia.
"Coal River Mountain has become the epicenter of the battle about coal in the United States and the planet's ecological future," said director Bill Haney, who said the film's $1-2 million budget came from private individuals.
In mountaintop, or surface mining, companies dig into mountains and dump debris in streams and valleys that environmentalists charge pollutes water and kills plants and wildlife.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr -- the environmental activist son of the late Bobby Kennedy -- says the practice ravages mountain tops, uproots communities, poisons fish, compromises government agencies and leads to a host of human health defects.
"West Virginia is the template for what is going to happen for the rest of the country," Kennedy Jr. told Reuters.
"They have buried 2500 miles of Appalachian rivers and blown up 500 mountains and the only reason that happens is because democracy has failed and they have been able to hide this story from the American people," he said.
Mountaintop mining is cheaper than underground mining, but the coal industry and U.S. government bodies argue that it is subject to stringent state and federal permits in which coal companies must specify how they will safely remove debris and are held responsible for re-planting forests after the mine is played out.
But the documentary argues otherwise. It features Kennedy as he joins local activists trying to stop Massey Energy Co. from mining the top off of Coal River Mountain, and lobbying for building a wind farm instead.
LOSS OF DEMOCRACY
Massey owned the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia where 29 miners died in an explosion last year.
Massey declined to be interviewed for the film. Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for Alpha Natural Resources, which has since acquired Massey, told Reuters she could not comment: "We don't want to prejudge a film that we haven't actually seen."
According to a U.S. EPA report last year, mountaintop removal damages water quality, ecosystems, renders streams unfit for fishing or drinking and has resulted in almost 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams being buried.
Massey's 28 waste impoundments in the United States have spilled 24 times in the last decade, contaminating rivers with more than 300 million gallons of toxic sludge, the filmmakers said, quoting a 2009 report by the Coal Impoundment Location & Information system.
Kennedy, 57, an environmental law attorney who wrote a 2005 book, "Crimes Against Nature", argues that government agencies meant to protect Americans from pollution, "have become the sock puppets or instrumentality for the industry that it is supposed to regulate."
A spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection declined to return a call for comment.
"One of the broader messages of this film is a warning to Americans about what happens when corporations take over our government," Kennedy said.
The documentary, which argues that wind power should replace coal, also takes issue with the industry's claims that stopping coal mining would mean job losses.
"Fifty years ago there were 151,000 coal miners in West Virginia and today there are 15,000 and yet the coal coming out each year has soared in that period of time," Kennedy said.
(Editing by Jill Serjeant)