New Film Among Appalshop's Best
By William Farley

in THE MOUNTAIN EAGLE (Whitesburg, KY)

June 7, 2005


Filmmaker Robert Salyer gave the public its first look at "Sludge," a documentary film which examines the October 2000 Martin County sludge pond disaster and its aftermath.

The film was part of Appalshop's Seedtime on the Cumberland festival, a celebration of Appalachian culture and a frequent venue for the introduction of Appalshop films. Appalshop made its reputation by producing films that give an accurate portrayal of life in Appalachia, while adhering to a high artistic standard. Appalshop films have often caused some degree of consternation among those who wield power in the region. Salyer's film follows Appalshop tradition in both instances.

On October 11, 2000, a massive sludge pond broke through the underground coal mine it sat upon. The ensuing deluge flooded several hollows in Martin County and left a thick layer of sludge, the byproduct of the coal preparation process. It is evident that Salyer got to Martin County early, as several shots in the film carry the date of October 12, 2000, the day after the disaster. The sludge spill was 36 times larger than the oil spill caused by the Exxon Valdez, yet it drew a very small amount of coverage from the national media.

The film opens with a gorgeous shot of a lovely rural middle-class neighborhood. The narrator tells the audience about the area's beauty, but soon they learn that just under the green of the grass, gray mine sludge still lingers. Several different residents show sludge that is still just below the ground or which still lines the creeks. This is after a cleanup that cost Martin County Coal and its then-parent company, A.T. Massey, millions. One resident tells the camera he is still afraid to plant a garden for fear of heavy metals and other toxic elements in the soil. Another says she fears for her children to play in the creek because of the toxins.

Footage of the actual sludge has a surreal aspect, with the slick gray mud flowing down what were once streams, with an oily motion to match their silvery sheen. There are a number of shots of relatively expensive homes that are surrounded by the mess, that were taken by Salyer the day after the spill. In one of the most poignant scenes, a child's swing rests nearly parallel to the ground on a thick bed of coal sludge.

The film follows the cleanup and public meetings held by Martin County Coal to attempt to quell public outrage and to spin the toxicity of the sludge into something no more dangerous than actual dirt. In one meeting with an angry group of Martin Countians, Martin County Coal President Dennis Hatfield tries to sell the crowd on the idea that the sludge is no more dangerous than regular soil, telling them that all the elements in sludge are also present in plain dirt. When one of the audience members asks him if he would feed sludge to his children, Hatfield finally manages to choke out a subdued "yes."

"Sludge" is more than just a story of the sludge spill. It also shows how the federal government betrayed the people of Martin County and how the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) became compromised by the Bush administration as it wrote its final report on the disaster. In the end, MSHA seems to be a little more than an apologist for Massey Coal, a company that gave over $100,000 to a Republican Senate campaign fund administered by Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell.

The story within a story concerns Jack Spadaro, the former director of MSHA's Safety Academy, and his subsequent problems with the agency after refusing to sign off on a report that basically exonerated Martin County Coal. Spadaro was investigated, nearly fired, and finally took early retirement from MSHA after publicly criticizing the agency for its report. He discussed his situation and the spill on a number of television news programs, including CBS's "60 Minutes."

In one scene with Spadaro, the audience learns that a smaller spill had occurred on the same site in 1994, and Martin County Coal had lied to MSHA in its plan to "fix" the problem. Spadaro said the company reported the coal bed the pond sat upon to be 100 feet thick when the company knew it was only 15 feet thick. He said Martin County Coal should have been cited for lying to the government in 1994.

In a discussion after the film, Spadaro said the Bush administration is "the most corrupt and lawless that I've seen."

It is clear in the film that once Elaine Chao became head of the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers MSHA, nothing was done without an eye toward easing the burden on the coal companies. The original fine on Martin County Coal was only $110,000, and it was eventually lowered to $5,500. The film very plainly shows how disillusioned the residents of Martin County became with the government after experiencing this disaster and seeing the way the regulatory agencies handled it.

The film also features a number of Martin County residents, including Mick and Nina McCoy, both public school teachers in Martin County. One scene shows Nina McCoy in her science classroom discussing the Periodic Table with her students. McCoy tells them that the federal Environmental Protection Agency told the citizens of Martin County the sludge was perfectly safe because "there was nothing in it that isn't in the Periodic Table."

"Sludge" is beautifully filmed, with perfectly executed scene breaks and fades. Salyer is an immensely talented filmmaker and one can only hope that he will continue to turn his considerable talent to socially important issues.

"Sludge" is a film that every resident of the coal-producing counties in central Appalachia should see. As the film tells us, sludge ponds are all over the mountains and, according to Jack Spadaro, the trend is going toward larger and larger ponds, and "it will happen again."