Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on Appalachia: ‘Big Coal is a Criminal Enterprise’

Kennedy activist calls coal mining in West Virginia a subversion of democracy in a new documentary based on his writing

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. has been an environmental activist for more than 25 years, as an attorney, an author and the founder of the Waterkeeper Alliance. The third of 11 children of the senator, attorney general and presidential candidate assassinated in 1968, Kennedy is also one of the chief voices in "The Last Mountain," director Bill Haney's documentary about the locals in a West Virginia valley fighting to stop a giant coal company from ravaging their environment with the controversial mining practice known as Mountain Top Removal.

Kennedy himself is no stranger to controversy, stirring up detractors by speaking out against childhood vaccinations and writing a detailed analysis of how the 2004 presidential election was "stolen." He was named one of Time.com's "Heroes of the Planet," and Rolling Stone's "100 Agents of Change."

Robert F. Kennedy Jr."The Last Mountain" opens Wednesday in Los Angeles. Kennedy spoke to TheWrap about the film in which he appears, but over which he had no editorial control. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

As someone who's been working on environmental issues for years, do you find that film has a particular way to impact the discussion?
The unfortunate thing is that it's the only thing left. With the state of journalism in our society, the only real investigative journalism that's left these days is in the documentary realm — other than a few outliers like Rolling Stone and Mother Jones, and Vanity Fair occasionally.

How did your involvement with this film come about?
I wrote a piece around 2002 for Rolling Stone called "Crimes Against Nature." HarperCollins asked me to turn it into a book, and I sold the book as a movie. But I looked at the first version and wasn’t happy with it, so it kind of died. And the producer wasn’t happy with what her original director had done, so she gave it to Bill Haney. He took it, and instead of making it about the whole book, which covered energy policy and oil under the Bush administration, he made it just about coal.

Was the full book too broad a subject for one film?
It was too big. I'm not a filmmaker, but I think they needed a smaller story that involved a human drama, rather than an inventory of asshole moves by the Bush administration, which is what the book was. (pause) Let me put it this way: it was an inventory of criminal behavior and anti-democratic behavior by the Bush administration.

This movie is two things. It's the story of the environmental destruction of Appalachia, and the scale of that destruction is enormous. Over the past 10 years they’ve destroyed 1.4 million acres illegally. They've flattened 500 of the biggest mountains in West Virginia. They’ve illegally buried 2,200 miles of rivers and streams. They detonate the equivalent explosive power every week of the Hiroshima bomb, just in West Virginia. And they're doing that to the richest ecosystem, probably the most important ecosystem, north of the equator.

The reason I say that — and this is a digression, but Appalachia was the only forest to survive the Pleistocene Ice Age. All of North America became a tundra, and the only places where the trees survived were the narrow river valleys of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. And when the glaciers withdrew 12,00 years ago, all of North America was reseeded from that seed base. So that's the mother forest for the whole continent, and also the oldest and richest forest, with more biodiversity than any other forest in North America.

The Last MountainIt's also a historically important ecosystem. Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, and so many of our great national activities, from bluegrass music to NASCAR, are rooted in that landscape, which they're destroying.

If that's part of what the movie is about, what's the other part of the story?
The film is really about the subversion of democracy. Whenever you destroy the environment, it's accompanied by the subversion of democracy. What they're doing is illegal. Massey Coal had 67,000 violations of the Clean Water Act in five years — and in fact, when I debated their CEO John Blankenship a year and a half ago, I said to him, "Is it possible to remove a mountain without breaking the law?" And he said no.

These are criminal enterprises. The only way they can function is to violate the law continuously, and get away with it. But in order to carry off that kind of business plan, you have to subvert democracy.

So wherever you see large-scale destruction of the environment, you'll see the disappearance of public participation at the local level. Individuals who want to participate in decisions that determine the destinies of their community are deprived of that. Transparency in government, which is the hallmark of democracy, disappears. You'll see the capture of the agencies that are supposed to be protecting Americans from pollution. Instead, those agencies, like the West Virgina Department of Power, become the instrumentalities, the sock puppets of the very industries that they're supposed to be regulating.

And then you'll see the corruption of public officials, from the judiciary to every relevant official, from the governor to the senators, Democrats and Republicans on down.

They’ve all been corrupted by this industry. My father always used to say, how is it that this is the richest state in terms of natural resources, and yet it is the 49th worst in terms of the wealth of their people? It's because of corruption. The companies promise prosperity, but they bring in non-union miners from right-to-work states like South Carolina and pay them 15 bucks an hour with no health insurance. They spent five years cutting down a mountain, and then they move to the next mountain. That's not bringing prosperity, that's bringing poverty.

RFK Jr.Since the movie was made, Don Blankenship has stepped down and Massey Energy has been sold. Do you see any favorable signs these days?
Well, the Obama administration is doing a lot better with Mountain Top Removal than the Bush administration did. They had 85 permits that they were supposed to approve at the outset, and they denied 79 of them.

They're making it much more difficult for the industry to continue to do large-scale Mountain Top Removal mining. But it's still happening, because they're using other methods. (Photo by Eric Grunebaum)

So how do you break big coal's grasp on the region?
I think what is most likely to break it is if you continue to force them to pay for their externalities. You have to withdraw their subsidies, and then they can't compete in the marketplace. You need to force them to pay to remove the mercury, force them to pay to remove the ozone particulates, force them to take care of the coal ash piles and make it more expensive for them to do Mountain Top Removal.

If they were deprived of their subsidies, we can deliver wind and solar and even natural gas a lot cheaper than they can deliver coal. So that, I think, is our job.