The Real Deal Daryl Hannah Takes on Coal (and Every Other Eco-Cause)

A lot of famous people with a green bent are now grouped under the catchall term “eco-celebrity,” but few have taken their commitments as seriously as Daryl Hannah. The actress first made famous as a beautiful android in the dark thriller Blade Runner, and then as the charming mermaid in 1984’s Splash, and as a one-eyed assassin in 2003 and 2004’s Kill Bill Vol. I & II, is a save-the-world girl at heart. She became a vegetarian at age 11 since she loved animals, and by age 45, in 2006, was chaining herself to a walnut tree for weeks with tree-sitter Julia Butterfly Hill in South Los Angeles. It was the site of an urban community garden that had been sold to private developers. She and the other activists were arrested. Now Hannah, who has greened her life about as thoroughly as a person can—she lives in an off-grid, solar-powered home in the Rocky Mountains, waters her vegetables with graywater, drives a biodiesel-powered 1983 El Camino bought online, and produces and films web videos on a host of green topics at—has turned her attention to coal. Like other environmental topics that have rallied her to action, the realization of mountaintop removal mining—how it has destroyed more than a million acres across the Appalachian Mountains, leaving a toxic moonscape in its wake—left her no choice but to follow her convictions straight to a June 23 protest in southern West Virginia—and another arrest. Below, Hannah talks to E about why she needed to take action against coal, and why we should, too.

E Magazine: Why do you think a destructive practice like mountaintop removal mining is so little recognized outside of the areas where it’s taking place?

Daryl Hannah: It’s hard to say. These times can be overwhelming, as we are facing so many crises. But how do you hide two million acres of leveled, decimated land? How can coal companies think that it’s acceptable to have blown off over 500 mountain tops and dump the rubble into the valleys below, killing over 3,000 miles of headwater streams? Mountaintop removal (MTR) is happening in extremely economically depressed areas with the vast majority being in southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky. In these areas, people don”t have a loud voice, or the resources to let the world know, raise hell and fight it and these communities are dying fast. The towns are getting boarded up and their jobs disappearing as quickly as the viable land and water around them. Due to the heavy machinery involved less manpower is needed, so 75% of mining jobs have already been lost to the machines and explosives of MTR. Yet surface mining actually has more accidents and deaths than traditional underground mining per employee ratio. There basically is no remediation or reclamation. Less than 3% of these MTR sites have been reclaimed. Some fast-growing grasses have been sprayed on a few sites. Trees won’t grow because there is no topsoil left. The topsoil that was there has been blown up and buried during the process of removing the mountain. At some sites they have managed to plant some stunted locust and scrub pines. They have a show place, for PR purposes, where millions have been sunk into landscaping with topsoil, trees and all. And of course, that’s the site they use to show in their television advertising.

E: Was your recent trip to the West Virginia protest the first time you”d seen the effects of mountaintop removal in person? What was your reaction?

D.H.: It made me feel ill. I almost can”t explain how hard it is to assimilate and process the moonscape that is left behind. I went to one sight just yards from some of the locals’ homes. Modest cabins, but ones that have been in their families for generations, and in their front yard there’s this massive contaminated explosion site with a slurry lake filled with billions of gallons of poisonous toxic sludge. And the valley fills associated with surface coal mining increase the trace metals and toxic salts (sulfates, magnesium, bicarbonate and total dissolved solids) to the downstream aquatic communities and these dissolved ions are never really sequestered by the surrounding geology and may ultimately emanate from the fills for decades. It’s horrifying!

If you can believe it, Massey Energy (the coal company operating in the region where I was arrested) is trying to promote these leveled and toxic sites as a big bonus to the region, by claiming it leaves behind millions of acres of flattened land ready for future development.

E: Momentum is building against coal. Why now?

D.H.: As we all are becoming more aware of the hideous ramifications of fossil fuels, it’s clear we”ve been killing ourselves with shortsightedness. We are suffering from huge global conflicts right now over oil. Coal, the largest source of energy for electricity generation worldwide, is also one of the largest sources of carbon dioxide emissions. Coal is relatively cheap (if you don”t value human health) and it’s abundant, but is one of the dirtiest, filthiest sources of energy around. And there is no such thing as clean coal! Coal-fired power plants shorten nearly 24,000 lives a year in the U.S. alone, including 2,800 from lung cancer. Coal generates hundreds of millions of tons of waste products, including fly ash, bottom ash and flue gas desulfurization sludge that contain mercury, uranium, thorium, arsenic and other heavy metals. High-sulfur coal creates acid rain. Of course there’s interference with groundwater and water table levels. Coal-fired power plants without effective fly ash capture are one of the largest sources of human-caused background radiation exposure and coal is one of the leading causes of asthma, which is now a full-on epidemic.

Thankfully, I think it’s starting to sink in that we actually have the technology to become self-sufficient, which would allow us to give up our addiction to dirty, deadly fossil fuels. We”re realizing it’s suicide if we don”t make the move to clean, renewable, regenerative energy.

E: How do you see the country transitioning away from coal?

D.H.: According to Nate Lewis [a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology] more energy hits the earth in one hour from the sun than all other forms of energy used by man in an entire year. We”re currently perfecting solar thermal and new battery and storage technology. We have amazing new wind turbines that are silent, efficient, low-profile designs that could potentially revive the wasted industrial heart of this country. There are dormant factories, machinery, and tons of struggling people out of work in steel towns all over America, who, with just a little job training, could easily be powering our country. It is just common sense to move toward community-based regenerative energy.

E: Can you tell me about some of the people you met who are affected by mountaintop removal mining? How have they inspired you?

D.H.: It’s been incredibly inspiring and heart wrenching. I met so many beautiful, brave families who are literally fighting for their lives. They live modestly while suffering daily assaults, like the rock and glass shards that rain down from explosives that detonate all day and night. Their kids go to school right under a threatening 2.8 billion gallon toxic slurry pond that if breached would give their kids the impossible challenge to evacuate in under three minutes. Because of the extreme poverty and the omnipresent fear of losing more jobs, tensions are at an all-time high. I received hundreds of e-mails from residents who confessed their own horror stories but asked that I not print them for fear of their safety.

E: Tell me about the arrest—was it something you were prepared for?

D.H.: When I went to Coal River, West Virginia, I was prepared for our civil disobedience to end with an arrest. There were over 30 arrested and we were held in a hallway until we could all be processed and released. The state troopers were quite respectful; some even thanked me for my involvement. This action was an organized effort by the Coal River residents, who have been going through these trials for quite some time. Judy Bonds, Goldman Environmental Prizewinner and codirector of Coal River Mountain Watch of West Virginia who has been arrested numerous times trying to stop this abomination said, “Every West Virginian should be outraged that these out-of-state coal companies and their agents are blasting our homes and poisoning our water and our air. These peaceful protesters are here to help stop the poisoning of our land and our people. They are heroes and we welcome them.” And Bo Webb, the community activist and volunteer with Coal River Mountain Watch who I had the great fortune to stay with during my visit said after the arrest, “The true patriots are the concerned citizens who went up on that mine site today. It is the people of Appalachia who are being assaulted by Massey Energy: Our mountains, our water, our air and our heritage has been assaulted, and the government is doing nothing to protect us from this aggression.We are fighting for our lives here and we appreciate those who are coming to our aid. There are no outsiders when it comes to fellow Americans coming to the defense of one another’s civil and human rights.”

E: What other issues are you working on? How do you stay motivated?

D.H.: I see all of the actions we take that result in health crises, environmental degradation, slavery, extinctions and war as interlinked, so I do what I can to try to share information in order to enable ourselves to make wiser, more informed choices. I make video blogs at to bring attention to some of the many solutions as well. As I see it, all of the crises we face ultimately come down to value issues. As far as staying motivated and involved, I”m alive in this world, how could I not be deeply involved?