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Chuck Lewis to Host Silverdocs Panel After ‘On Coal River’ Premier

The West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 29 workers in April brought international attention to the industry’s problems.

But well before the accident at the Massey Energy Company’s Upper Big Branch mine, 30 miles south of Charleston, a team of filmmakers already were busy uncovering the toxic effects of America’s increased demand for cheap coal. Their documentary, On Coal River, premiers June 25 at the AFI-Discovery Channel Silverdocs Documentary Festival in Silver Spring, Md.

The screening is sponsored by American University’s School of Communication, which  is a contributing sponsor of the festival. On June 26, SOC professor Charles Lewis will moderate a post-screening panel discussion with filmmakers Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Woods, and film subjects Bo Webb, Judy Bonds, and Ed and Deb Wiley.

Shot over a four-year period, On Coal River follows the plights of four residents of West Virginia’s Coal River Valley. When they begin noticing that a host of medical problems are linked to a Massey-owned coal-waste dumping ground that sits above the local elementary school, they demand action. One former miner, Ed Wiley, takes matters into his own hands to lobby for a new school to be built far away from the dumping ground. Wiley, along with other members of his community, join together in a David-and-Goliath struggle to draw national attention to the dangers they face on a daily basis.

Lewis is the executive editor of SOC’s Investigative Reporting Workshop, which also is working on a story about the coal industry.

“I’m interested in the political and economic dimensions of [the industry],” Lewis said. “Our interest preceded the Massey incident. We’ve been brushing up against the subject for the last two years.”

SOC professor Larry Engel, a filmmaker in residence at the workshop, has spent time in West Virginia shooting footage of coal mines and the towns where their workers live. Additionally, students in Lewis’s in-depth journalism class have been researching the influence the coal industry has on the courts in the state.

“It cannot be overstated,” Lewis said. “The fact is it’s an extraordinary influence by one industry.”