Since its rise in the 18th century to the present, coal has held a tight grip on the United States’s economy and job market. It helped power the United States through the industrial revolution and propelled the country’s economy forward. But despite the many positive things that coal afforded this country, and many others around the world, such things have not come without consequence. Environmental disasters, health crises, and economic monopolies have risen along with coal. From the Ashes, a documentary produced by Bloomberg Philanthropies and National Geographic, explores coal’s history in the United States and the implications of the industry. With perspectives from miners, activists, scientists, and regular citizens, the film presents an in-depth view of the many people that the coal industry impacts.
Not only is the film focused on the coal industry, but more importantly, the changing climate of the industry. As it becomes more evident that coal is an outdated energy source, many consumers are choosing to move to natural gas or renewable energy sources. While this is good news for the environment and many people facing the environmental health issues caused by coal, it also leaves many people unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. From the Ashes explores how families and individuals are coping with both the environmental and economic problems associated with coal. A certain focus is also given to grass-roots organizing and the politics of coal in the United States, especially given the Trump administration’s strong pro-coal stance. Finally, the documentary also asks important questions about how this country starts to move forward and questions whether that is with or without coal.
Regina Lilly, a resident of Lincoln County, West Virginia, reflects on the many different impacts that the coal industry has had on her family. Not only has coal impacted the economic livelihood of her family, but also their basic health. Her husband was a miner, but he was laid off, and, as in much of Appalachia, the heavy strip mining and mountaintop-removal practices have contaminated the well of their home. Of course, impacts on Regina Lilly and her family are not unknown to others. Despite its aged technology and negative impacts, many people, as well as companies, continue to invest in coal. Many places in the United States still rely on coal to exist.
The documentary takes viewers to Appalachia, specifically in West Virginia, and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to investigate how the industry is changing and what this means for miners and their families. In the Powder River Basin, as in Appalachia, many towns exists due to coal and completely revolve around the industry. Colstrip, Montana, as its name implies, is completely derived from coal mining and processing in the area.
The film presents many characters from the region, including residents as well as Montana state senator Duane Ankney, and their perspectives on the changing climate of coal. From all stories presented in the film, it is obvious that there is a divide in methods to move forward. Those who benefit heavily from the money in coal are stern in their unwillingness to give up the industry and invest in new technologies. But on the other side, film makers show the many residents who experience the severe and even deadly hazards of coal. Such people are also stern in their anti-coal stance. So how does the United States move forward? From the Ashes doesn’t present definitive answers, but does provide the audience with a special look inside the many angles and impacts of the industry. Perhaps Americans may still be able to rise from the ashes and climb out of the deep pit of struggles surrounding coal.