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Coal, Kids and America’s Classrooms
I bet you remember the powerful and persistent Julia Roberts in the Oscar-winning “Erin Brockovich” who is an impelling force behind the largest medical settlement lawsuit in history around the contamination of drinking water. The southern California town of Hinkley experienced ground water contamination which Pacific Gas & Electric Company knew about and tried to cover up. Brockovich fought to protect her community from the terrible health effects of exposure to localized toxic substances.
Ten years later, the release of the film The Last Mountain brings to light similar haunting facts about the carnage and destruction inflicted on rural Appalachia, West Virginia happening today. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. joins in the fight alongside residents of the Coal River Valley in West Virginia, who endure earsplitting explosions, extreme flooding, raining boulders that tear through communities, toxic sludge and poisoned water wells, life threatening exposure to toxins, and devastating pre-mature deaths.
Roughly half the electricity in the U.S. comes from burning coal—one-third of that coal comes from the Appalachian Mountains. Yet there is a vast amount of mis-education about coal. In the film, we are shown a school full of young imperiled children attending an elementary school coated in silica dust just below an impoundment holding 2.8 billion gallons of sludge. Classrooms are filled with cancer and autism clusters that clearly defy statistical logic. I couldn’t help but think about the irony that just weeks ago fourth-grade curriculum materials developed by the American Coal Foundation were distributed to tens of thousands of teachers. The materials included no mention of the adverse environmental or health impacts of coal, presenting an unfair and unbalanced picture for our children.
So while the fourth largest coal company continues to blow up mountain tops for coal, we not only have local communities enduring life-threatening exposure to toxins, but the coal industry is using the classroom as a forum to propagandize kids on behalf of their product leaving out critical implications?
As the future of the Appalachian Mountains holds great potential to harvest wind energy as an alternative, children have a right to know the full story on electricity production via coal burning. Environmental and energy-based lesson plans and curricula should present a fair and balanced viewpoint and prepare our children for a complex and possibly perilous set of future environmental realities.
The Last Mountain opened last weekend in New York City and Washington, DC. See when this gripping documentary will be playing in a city near you.
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