Founder / Editor


Associate Editor


Assistant Editor











NatGeo Mines Coal’s Contradictions with ‘From the Ashes’
June 24, 2017  | By David Sicilia  | 2 comments

Coal is hot. President Trump wants to make it great again. Environmentalists hate it for being the single greatest man-made contributor to global warming and environmental contamination. Into the debate steps NatGeo, with this 90-minute exploration of one of our prickliest problems. Jobs versus clean air and water? Conservatives versus liberals? Not so fast. The virtue of this work of documentary advocacy is in adding layers to what seems at first blush a simple debate. The coal question, it turns out, reaches into places you may not have imagined.

From the Ashes (Sunday at 9 p.m. ET) opens with then-president Obama talking about environmental regulations on coal and Trump pledging to roll it all back. Such figureheads are easy targets. But as one talking head notes, “coal has always divided communities.” Obama v. Trump is quickly followed – and largely supplanted – by tensions and rivalries along a whole host of fault lines. From the Ashes travels across the land to tell those stories.

Ground Zero, of course, is West Virginia and the larger Appalachian region, which in the mid-1940s employed 120,000 coal workers but now employs only 54,000 miners (average age over fifty).  Employment plummeted long before Obama took office. Mechanization – those behemoth drills and earth strippers … great footage in this film for boys who love construction toys – halved the industry’s employment within a few years, while boosting production dramatically.

It’s a leitmotif of capitalism to replace men with machines. But capitalism is also about industry battling industry, firm against firm. Recently, coal’s biggest rival is fracking, which is mass producing cheap natural gas.

A visit to the ramshackle home of Cecil and Regina Lilly in Lincoln County, West Virginia, shows the human toll of plunging coal mining employment. Another fault line emerges: workers versus the coal companies (a.k.a. labor versus capital). It’s a long and dirty history in which bosses professed to care more for the mules than the men (because they were cheaper and easier to replace) and cut corners on safety. The 21st-century iteration is white collar, as Big Coal uses bankruptcy laws to welch on pension payments and health care.

We head west to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to see yet another rivalry. President George H.W. Bush signed the Clear Air Act of 1990 to help reduce acid rain. That put a premium on lower-sulfur coal from Powder River, which soon was out producing Appalachia in coal.  Powder River towns like Colstrip, Montana, started producing and transmitting electricity to the Pacific Northwest. The plot thickens even more as green-oriented cities in those regions come to spurn coal-generated power.

In Dallas, Texas, we learn that dozens die each year (about 7,500 nationally) from coal pollution-related lung disease, including a woman named Akinyemi, who died of respiratory failure a few weeks after she was interviewed for the program. Coal plant emissions, it seems, combine beautifully with automobile exhaust to create ozone, a major source of asthma.

In its second half, From the Ashes focuses on coal’s environmental ills, a topic NatGeo is supremely equipped to handle. Back in North Carolina, we learn of ponds where coal power plants dump their ashes. Coal is rich in energy but also in toxic metals like arsenic, mercury, lead, and selenium that leach into aquifers and kill another 1,000 Americans prematurely each year. When coal is shipped cross-country by train, the miles of railcars bifurcate towns and spew debris across the landscape.  Director Michael Bonfiglio is creative in depicting all the ways coal harms, but the voices of coal companies are conspicuously absent. Did they refuse to comment?

Telescoping outward to explore energy options worldwide, From the Ashes does not shy from taking a position. After following coal’s saga across time and space in the first hour, the documentary has laid its foundation. Clips of Trump making promises, withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty, and cutting funding for the Appalachian Regional Commission more than rankle. Even folks in Appalachia are skeptical the industry will roar back. And should it? As West Virginia state Senator Jeff Kessler tells the camera, even in its heyday, the coal industry left the state weak in economic development.

The good news, Ashes reminds us, is that economics are now propelling renewable energy forward – even in improbable places like the deep-red town of Georgetown, Texas, which now relies 100 percent on wind and solar power. Those sectors now employ more than twice as many Americans as coal, with profound growth potential. Leading cities around the world are coordinating and pushing forward. Trump versus environmentalists has become Trump versus science, economics, and municipalities. And in that rivalry, he is not so much being fought head-to-head as being bypassed and ignored.

Leave a Comment: (No HTML, 1000 chars max)
 Name (required)
 Email (required) (will not be published)
Type in the verification word shown on the image.
 Page: 1 of 1  | Go to page: 
R. Dunn
So will this politically biased, left-wing, environmentalism-is-a-religion "documentary" talk about how Communist China and India are allowed to ignore any of these so vaunted 'environmentalist policies'...why is all this anti-coal talk blanketed as anti-America bullshit by leftist progressives...???
Jun 25, 2017   |  Reply
The doc and article read quite fact-based. That's about as pro-business as you can get. Not sure what the benefits of being as polluted as other countries would be.
Jul 3, 2017
Time to cue up John Prine's Paradise(1971) for a perspective lost on many with the effects of strip mining,which was the reason why so many jobs ended while Trump was sludging through Penn's Wharton School. And how lovely those mountains look today-oh,wait,they used to be mountains,right? Sherman,ask the real Mr. Peabody what happened to those mountains,the people who lived there and their jobs. And Peabody just came out of bankruptcy.
Jun 24, 2017   |  Reply
 Page: 1 of 1  | Go to page: