A couple of months ago, I walked into the lobby of a New York City movie theater and was approached by a tall, lanky man in his late 20s wearing a backwards baseball hat. He asked if I cared about the environment, climate change and clean energy. He was trying to get Con Edison customers to switch to Green Mountain Energy by espousing the virtues of clean, renewable energy ― oh, and he’d give me a $10 AMC gift card.

I ended up switching because I didn’t realize I had a choice of energy service company, nor that I had a say in how that energy was sourced. (As this site points out, it’s impossible to know where exactly energy comes from, but signing up for a greener company sets aside more money for renewable resources.)

It’s something I kept thinking about while watching “From the Ashes,” which explores the issues surrounding the coal industry and how it affects Americans. Fittingly, the idea of where our power comes from is one of the first things the film’s director Michael Bonfiglio mentioned to me in an interview the day after the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. 

“I think most of us, myself included, until I began working on this film, when we flip our light switch on, we don’t know where it’s coming from. It’s just coming from an electricity factory somewhere. We don’t know what’s actually generating our power,” he said. “We are all making a decision when we turn on our lights. It certainly affects people who are not directly involved in the industry.”

About 30 percent of electricity in the United states is generated by coal, but it’s “the most polluting form of energy on the planet. It’s the biggest contributor to climate change,” says Mary Anne Hitt of environmental group the Sierra Club in the film. 

In March, President Trump signed an executive order rolling back Obama-era energy policies designed to curb planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. Trump vowed to begin an “energy revolution” and said signing the order would “eliminate federal overreach” and “start a new era of production and job creation.”

Andrew Lichtenstein via Getty Images

A coal mine in Pennsylvania, late 2016.

But coal company executives have already admitted that Trump’s executive order won’t single-handedly save the industry and bring back jobs. “From the Ashes” shows that many of these jobs have already been replaced by mechanization and aren’t coming back. What’s more, the film explains that coal companies are the reason that states like West Virginia remained reliant on the industry for jobs, halting development of any alternative economic base.

“[Coal companies] can block legislation, they can block economic initiatives. Any kind of industry that can compete with them, they want to keep it out,” Appalachia historian Chuck Keeney explained in the film.

The documentary, which is an an excellent primer for those who don’t know anything about coal, looks at its affects on our climate, public health and the economy. And Bonfiglio even admitted that he “knew next to nothing” when the film was first pitched to him. 

“You want to make a film about coal? I thought, Is there any more boring topic? You know: It’s a rock. Who cares?” he said. “And then I very quickly started to get educated on the issue and realized that it’s something that has so many different issues and affects people’s lives in ways that we’re not even aware of.”

One of the issues concerns coal ash ― the waste material produced from burning coal that contains arsenic, mercury, lead and other heavy metals. 

“I mean there are these coal ash pits all over the place, and I think as [the Sierra Club’s] Bruce Niles says in the film, ‘They are ticking time bombs all over the country that are unlined pits full of poison.’” 

The Washington Post via Getty Images

Coal-ash-contaminated water colorized from heavy metals. Coal ash is loaded with cancer causing chemicals and can lead to developmental disorders and reproductive problems.

Bonfiglio added that even if someone was fully aware that their power comes from coal, they probably aren’t thinking about the next step: What do you do with the leftover ash?

“What’s been done for decades and decades is just dumping [the ash] into unlined pits that are usually right near waterways and near the aquifers,” he said. “So, at this moment, people are drinking water somewhere in the United States that is being poisoned because the industry has not been responsible in the way they clean up after themselves. It’s mind-boggling.” 

Viewers of “From the Ashes” will likely see it that way as well, if not outright infuriating. But Bonfiglio said he hopes people who watch the film will walk away with “some hope that it is possible to make a change and the understanding that the supporting the communities that have worked so hard and made so many sacrifices to keep the lights on in this country for generations.”

He continued, “That there are ways to support those communities in making a just transition to [a] cleaner, safer, healthier, more economically sustainable way of life.”

“From The Ashes” airs on National Geographic Channel on June 25 at 9 p.m. ET. 

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