Coal Show Goes on Despite Threats

Only a few boos mar debut of powerful documentary on Appalachia coal

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The email came late Wednesday afternoon, just three days before the July 11 premiere that’s been planned for months. The South Charleston Museum in West Virginia, which had agreed to show the documentary, "Coal Country," was backing out because of "concerns" about security at the event. Threats of protests meant the museum didn’t want to take part in showing a film that offers an unbiased and frank portrait of coal and its impact and history in Appalachia.

When executive producer Mari-Lynn Evans (who produced the powerful documentary "The Appalachians" for PBS in 2005) got the bad news about the South Charleston Museum, she immediately sent an email to the local activists helping plan the premiere. By Thursday morning, a flurry of phone calls, emails, conference calls and meetings were taking place in a mad rush to find an alternate location to show the film.

"Coal Country" looks at the impacts and influence that coal mining has had in Appalachia. Interviews with activists, lawyers, coal company executives, miners, politicians and regulators weave a compelling tale about both sides of coal: from those who make a living mining it to those whose lives slowly are being destroyed by it. (Full disclosure: Earthjustice is a supporter of "Coal Country" and is helping underwrite the film.)

By Thursday afternoon, a cadre of activists vowed that the show must go on. Within a day, the venue was changed and scheduling recommenced. The film would still premiere July 11, now at the West Virginia Cultural Center in downtown Charleston. By show time on Saturday night, the theater at the Cultural Center was packed, about 100 people listened in from the lobby and about 200 more were turned away because the crowd was simply too big. As many coal miners attended as activists, and despite some vocal boos from the audience, no protests and no violence materialized.

What did happen is West Virginians were treated to a film that goes beyond one-sided arguments about coal mining in Appalachia. And throughout this summer and into the fall, more viewings will happen in Kentucky, California, Ohio, New York, Washington, D.C. The film may have its PBS premier as early as November, so stay tuned to this blog and Earthjustice alerts for more info about a showing near you.

Jared was the head coach of Earthjustice's advocacy campaign team from 2004 to 2014.