Andy Miller, Eric Wallis and Robin Moore in coal country.
Mission resident Andy Miller is taking on Big Coal. The filmmaker assembled a 10-person crew to launch a cross-country investigation of the coal trade, from the mines in Wyoming to the Pacific Northwest.
Burning coal produces more carbon dioxide than oil or natural gas, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Recent clean energy initiatives and rapidly expanding Asian markets have prompted U.S. companies to look overseas for new business. Ambre Energy and Peabody Energy are seeking contracts to build three new deep-water ports on the Washington and Oregon coasts. Combined, these ports would ship up to 140 million tons of coal annually – more than the United States has ever exported in a single year.
“I was shocked at what was being proposed and that I hadn’t heard a thing about this,” Miller said. “I knew immediately that we had to step up to help tell this story.”
One of Miller’s major concerns is that millions of tons of coal would be shipped cross-country in open-top trains to reach the coast. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad estimates that as much as one ton of coal can escape from a single rail car on its way from Wyoming to coastal ports. Coal dust can erode railways, degrade water quality, and lead to major health problems among workers, including black lung, bronchitis, and emphysema.
In the Lamberts Point Coal Terminal in Norfolk, Va., soil samples taken one kilometer from the terminal contained 20 percent coal by weight. Five kilometers away, soil samples still contained 3 percent coal. Similar studies near coal railways have found elevated levels of arsenic – a component often found in coal – in the surrounding soil.
Miller started out by travelling to Gillette, a mining town in the Powder River Basin of northeastern Wyoming, to follow a coal train all the way to Seattle. “The countryside of the Pacific Northwest is incredibly varied and beautiful,” he said. “The coastal areas where they intend to build deep water coal export ports are beautiful and will be completely unrecognizable if Big Coal gets its way.”
While on the road, Miller said, many local communities were receptive to his project. However, some were critical. “Many people in Gillette and the coal mining country of Wyoming are firmly for coal expansion,” Miller said. “We found that area to be pretty harsh and intimidating. Their livelihoods depend on coal mining, and they could care less about climate change.”
“The reality is that coal mining is on a decline,” he said. “The hope, of course, is that these same people that currently work in coal could get jobs in other energy sectors, like wind or solar.”
Miller, whose work has included short documentary films on non-profit groups and socially conscious companies, has hopes his film will mobilize communities, including San Francisco’s Mission District, in the fight against coal. “Degradation to the environment in the Pacific Northwest [and Asia] directly affects all of us here in California,” he said. “Our water systems, our ocean, our mountain ranges, we’re all connected. The jet stream moves west to east, so pollutants being introduced into the air from coal-fired plants in China actually do make it into our air back here.”
Plus M Productions, which Miller co-founded in 2011 recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the film. The small production company hopes to raise $65,000 to make a feature-length documentary.
“There are a number of great organizations working on the ground every day in the Pacific Northwest to fight coal expansion,” Miller said. “You can write and talk all day about an issue, but sometimes you just need to see it in film to truly understand it.”