"From the Ashes," an anti-coal documentary by Michael Bonfiglio and financed by billionaire and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, debuted last night on the National Geographic Channel. Bloomberg and the National Geographic Documentary Films are making the 100-minute film available for free online through July 3.
"It’s a compelling piece of advocacy journalism, one that looks beyond the sloganeering on all sides of the debate," Sheri Linden writes in a review for the Los Angeles Times. "Crucially, Bonfiglio listens to some of the working people — outraged, mournful and resilient — whose lives have been affected by coal. They include West Virginia miners left high and dry by their bankrupt employers in what were essentially company towns and Dallas residents struggling with pollution-related asthma. He finds strange bedfellows: miners aligned with management against federal regulators, and the 'cowboys and Indians,' as one pleased Montana rancher puts it, who joined forces to defeat a proposal for what would have been the nation’s largest coal mine" in the Otter Creek Valley of the Powder River Basin.
The film opens from miners' point of view, but says the "war on coal was waged primarily by the natural-gas industry," which is providing cheaper fuel for electric generating plants. It notes the long history of mine disasters, mechanization and the dominance of the industry in Central Appalachia: "Coal companies made sure west Virginia never developed an alternative economic base." But now miners' interests are aligned with companies like never before, as the industry is the fight of its life, the film notes.
The primary thrust of the documentary is coal's effect on climate and health, including coal-ash disposal, which it describes as "a ticking time bomb." Like much advocacy journalism, it gives advocates a platform to make assertions that can be exaggerated or unproven. For example, Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club's "Beyond Coal" campaign, mentions "devastating health effects" from large-scale strip mining; studies have shown correlation, but not causation. Still, New York Times reviewer Jaworokowski writes that Bonfiglio "is dedicated to giving a clear-eyed look . . . no business executives are chased down and held to task here, and politicians are blamed but only a few are named." President Trump, who ran on a pro-coal platform, is one.
Hitt utters one of her best lines as she drives through mountaintop-removal areas in West Virginia: "These places are not just physically important to people, they're spiritually important to people, and once they're gone, they're gone forever."