The Goldman Environmental Prize is perhaps the most important—and generous—environmental tribute of its kind with an annual financial award that goes to grassroots environmental heroes from each of the world’s six inhabited continents. My Toxic Reality is about one of the winners, Hilton Kelly, who saw a need for someone to take a stand in his community of Port Arthur, Texas, a place where eight petrochemical refining facilities lord over that town’s residential areas. Hoping to reverse the severe economic and environmental decline of his hometown, and reduce the alarming incidence of respiratory and cancer-related illness, Kelly spent years learning all he could about policies governing industrial pollution. Then he galvanized his community to take action—to clean up historical damage and degradation and protect against future threats.
Mountain top removal is just what it sounds like: a mountain, shaped over millennia by geology and weather, is leveled in a day. Its crumbled remains are then sifted for coal. This brutal process wrecks rivers, crushes communities and has been the subject of many documentaries, but none as well told as On Coal River. Directors Francine Cavanaugh and Adams Wood focus on a secondary school in Coal River Valley, West Virginia that is threatened by toxic waste from an MTR operation run by the notorious coal mining company Massey Energy. Tilting against the coal barons is a band of tenacious activists that includes 2011 Mountainfilm guest Maria Gunnoe and which is led by Ed Wiley whose granddaughter is a student at the school. The film follows the tense battle for the school but also tells the larger story of what is happening across Appalachia, home to some of the oldest mountains in the world.