In coal mining, the term 'overburden' means the rock, soil and trees above a coal seam. To mine the coal seam, the overburden must be removed - usually by blowing the top off the mountain and bulldozing it all away.
This was what awaited the rather ironically named Coal River Mountain region in West Virginia in 2007. Massey Energy, the fourth-largest coal company in the US, proposed a 6000-acre mining project at Coal River Mountain. West Virginia's economy is heavily dependent on coal mining and many residents and politicians welcomed Massey's investment in the area.
But some questioned the project and began a campaign to stop the mine. Overburden follows two participants in the debate over Coal River Mountain. The first is anti-mine campaigner Lorelei Scarbro, whose property backs onto the site of the new mine and whose husband died of Black Lung. Complicating Scarbro's mission is the fact that her son-in-law works as a coal miner. Scarbro proposes building wind farms across the mountain range, creating clean energy and new jobs at the same time. She recruits environmentalist Rory McIlmoil, and he becomes a key player in the movement against the mine.
The other participant in the film is Betty Harrah, a staunch defender of coal mining in Appalachia. She's for coal, for the jobs, for the money. Her brother works as a coal miner for Massey and she believes that without coal mining the region would slump further into poverty. But Harrah's faith in coal is shattered on April 5, 2010 when a huge explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine kills 29 men - including her brother. The tragedy, and Massey's culpability in it, leads Harrah to team up with Scarbro and both women go public, protesting against Massey and the coal mining industry.
Overburden tells a story applicable to many parts of the world - jobs and money now, or diversification and thinking for the future. It's a classy piece of film making, benefiting hugely from the two women it profiles. Scarbro is brilliant, she's not a loony greenie - she realises what's at stake and that the community is going to be torn apart because of the dissent she is participating in. Harrah takes longer to come around to - at the start she spouts the 'coal is good' line almost unthinkingly. There's not much substance below the surface. All that changes when her brother is killed.
This is top-notch documentary making. The film exposes an issue, explains it and then follows it for a considerable time period to see how it plays out. It's in-depth, rigorous and illuminating. And it's definitely worth your time.
Overburden is screening as part of the Transitions Film Festival on Friday, 26th February 2016 at Cinema Nova, 6.30pm. The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring writers Greg Foyster, Tom Doig and Deborah Hart. Click here to purchase tickets.