NCIO Film Screening draws a full house for “From The Ashes”

  • "From The Ashes" set up of post-film panel. Photo credit: Steve Masover

Eighty-five people filled La Pena Cultural Center on Thursday, June 22, for a screening of a new National Geographic film about coal, “From the Ashes.” No Coal in Oakland organized the event, which included a panel discussion and audience reactions to the film.

“From the Ashes” illuminates the environmental, community, and health impacts of coal—from mining to transport to coal-fired plants—with emphasis on coal’s ruinous effects on workers and families who have built lives in communities dependent on the now-collapsing industry. Dramatic shots of mountain top removal, coal ash ponds, and smog accompany poignant stories from people with asthma or undrinkable water, people who lost their coal industry jobs with no livable alternatives available in their communities, and owners of coal-ruined ranch land.

The movie shows workers and politicians arguing that jobs ought to be prioritized and that health and environmental concerns are unfounded. These individuals argue that environmental regulations are responsible for the unemployment in coal country. But other speakers counter that coal companies could have installed scrubbers to reduce pollution, but didn’t in order to maximize profit at the expense of health and the environment; and, importantly, that as coal mining has become automated, fewer and fewer jobs exist even where coal is mined and burned; and that natural gas is now a better economic choice for electricity plant operators, resulting in a devil’s exchange of dirty coal for fracked natural gas.

The movie covers the successful grassroots campaign that defeated the proposed Otter Creek Mine and Tongue River Railroad in Montana, including the alliance of “cowboys and Indians” (ranchers and Indigenous people) that united to save their communities. Another local struggle is the ongoing effort to block a proposed coal terminal in Longview, Washington. The film states that, of several coal terminals proposed for the west coast, Longview is the only one that might still be built. The film acknowledges Oakland as a potential site, but does not explain that our city remains in the industry’s crosshairs; the filmmakers probably knew about the City Council ban on coal, but not about developer Phil Tagami’s lawsuit, which is pending.

"From The Ashes" Post-film panel. Photo credit: Steve Masover

“From The Ashes” Post-film panel. Photo credit: Steve Masover

Three panelists spoke after the film. Ted Franklin, from No Coal in Oakland, gave an overview of the local campaign. Ms. Margaret Gordon, of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project as well as NCIO, provided background about the project, including the long history of the developers’ misleading promises about jobs.

Kevin Christensen of Climate Workers spoke about labor’s involvement in the campaign and the importance of a just transition away from fossil fuels. A just transition is often defined as jobs at comparable wages for workers displaced from the fossil fuel industry. But a truly just transition also means sustainable jobs for those who have historically been shut out of these relatively well-paid industries—people of color, women, and other marginalized communities.

Several audience members elaborated on these themes. “From the Ashes” was funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies (the charitable arm of billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s business and political empire). This led to observations about the limitations of leadership from—or media underwritten by—billionaires who profit from our current economic system.

The movie provided context for our struggle to keep Phil Tagami’s coal export terminal out of Oakland, deepening our understanding of many issues related to coal and reminding us of the power of grassroots campaigns.