For his filmmaking debut, Burning the Future: Coal in America, director and co-writer David Novack certainly picked a bruiser of a topic. In Appalachian West Virginia, companies which for years had been extracting coal in the expected manner—having miners blast tunnels into the mountains and then haul the coal out—have in recent years been increasingly turning to an easier but environmentally devastating method of extraction: mountaintop-removal mining. Instead of going inside the mountains, now the mountains are simply blasted apart and chewed up by monstrous machines, the coal shipped away and the excess land dumped into and filling up hollows and streambeds. As a result, the residents of this lushly forested land have not only been made redundant by the new and preferred labor-saving method (coal mining in the state employed almost 60,000 people in 1980, just over 15,000 in 2004), but are also subjected to devastating flash floods, dirty air and poisoned water.

Unlike many issue-oriented documentaries, Burning the Future puts several members of the opposition on camera here to state their case. In this instance, it’s coal industry flacks and West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin III, who smilingly put across the idea that for better or worse, coal is not only where the nation gets its power but where it should get its power. Nobody can dispute the first part of that argument (according to the film, over 50% of electricity generated in America is done so by burning coal), it’s the second part that gets environmentalists and the filmmakers upset.

As the voices of discontent, Burning the Future turns not just to the expected academics and rabble-rousers—which they easily could have, because as with so many things evil, the current Bush administration’s energy policy is heavily behind digging out as much coal as possible by any means necessary—but to the residents being affected by the mining’s blowback. Following the work of a number of anti-mountaintop-removal activists, some of whom have literally seen their land washed away in floods caused by these methods, the film gives the issue a commendably personal feeling. This isn’t about yuppies deciding to drive a hybrid, it’s about working poor families whose kids are breathing contaminated air because there’s a polluting mine operation right behind their school, while at home poisoned tap water comes out of the faucet looking like mud. The politicians seem pretty well in the pocket of the coal industry, who for their part (as seen in some particularly disturbing video footage) do their level best to portray any mining critics as nattering nabobs who want to deprive the state of badly needed jobs (even though the return to traditional mining which critics call for would return many jobs to the state).

Although it puts across a powerful message with an impressive technical package (the cinematography is particularly effective at capturing the beauty of the lushly forested mountains being decimated), at some point Burning the Future turns into almost more of a PSA than a film. Without the scope and artistry of similar issue films like 2007’s oil-crisis study A Crude Awakening, it at times comes across as something more akin to an informational DVD you’d receive in the mail from an advocacy group than something one goes to see in a theatre.

Even considering its failings on a creative level, Burning the Future remains a film certainly worth seeing for one simple reason: It is one thing to read about mountaintop-removal mining, it’s quite another to see this doomsday-like process in action and to see what it does to the seemingly powerless citizenry stuck in its wake.