Julia Roberts Goad
VARNEY - When Trish Bragg moved from North Carolina to the West Virginia coalfields in 1976, she formed a bond with the mountains. So when her neighbors in the Pigeon Creek community of Pie began losing the source of water for their homes in 1994, Trish began to support her neighbors, teaching herself about the Department of Environmental Protection, mining laws, environmental groups and community activism.
In the course of the legal battle between the residents of Pie and the DEP, a lawsuit was filed, and Trish’s name was the one on the first page of the lawsuit - Bragg vs. Robertson (Colonel Dana Robertson, the district engineer at the Army Corps of Engineers).
Now Trish’s story has become the story of the struggle to find the balance of the making a living from coal mining and the responsibility of the coal companies to extract coal while doing as little damage as possible to the land and the people the industry supports.
“Moving Mountains” is a book written by Penny Loeb that chronicles the struggle the Pie community has faced since the wells that supplied water to homes ran dry as a result of underground mining.
The book has been turned into a movie, parts of which were filmed in Varney during the past two weeks.
Trish Bragg had gotten to know Loeb while the writer was covering the environmental impact of the coal industry on Pie for U.S. News and World Report. When Loeb realized the story
would become a book, she said she wanted to write the story “as much through the eyes of those in the coalfields as from the perspective of the lawyers.” So she wrote her book as a narrative of the struggle, with Trish Bragg as the focus of story.
Penny Loeb said she wrote the Moving Mountains script as an exercise during a screenwriting class. The teacher had suggested the students use one of their works as a basis for a screenplay, and she used her book.
“When Penny wrote her screenplay, she sent it to me, I critiqued it a little bit, told her things I thought she needed to fix - it was just for her class,” Bragg said. “I thought, cool beans, but didn’t know it would actually become a movie.”
But Loeb’s screenwriting teacher told her he thought the script could be made into a film. So the feature film is more a movie based on a true story than a documentary.
The character based on Trish is played by Theresa Russell, whose film credits include The Last Tycoon (with Robert De Niro), Black Widow and Empire Falls.
Sitting outside a cabin with Pigeon Creek and coal trucks both passing by, Russell said she struggled to bring Trish’s spirit to the part. She said she had played actual people, as opposed to fictional characters before, and it is a challenge.
“I was scared about playing her, I wanted to get her mannerisms and her accent right,” Russell said. “We invaded her home, telling her we needed clothes for costumes and she was so great, giving us stuff out of her closet. I adore her.”
Russell said she could relate to Trish Bragg’s connection to the land.
“I live in California, but for 20 years I lived in London, but I knew I wanted to return to California, to the land, the smell and feel of it. If someone defiled it, I would do whatever I could to stop it, like Trish.”
Trish said she had visited the set of the movie, and had broken down in tears at some of the memories Russell’s performance evoked.
Trish Bragg’s husband Dewey worked in the mines for years, until his health prevented him from it. She still lives in Pie, having went to school to become a nurse to support her family and raising two daughters.
“I am not against coal mining,” she said. “I was never against mining, I just think it should be done responsibly.”
But Bragg is more than self-deprecating when she talks about the part she played in the struggle for responsible mining. She takes very little credit in the fight that led to stricter mining laws for mountaintop removal mines and environmental protection.
“I’m not Superwoman,” she said. “I had to educate myself in order to help people. I had to be trained on how to organize meetings and file complaints … it was a learning process.”
She credits organizations like the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Coal River Watch and the West Virginia Organizing Project for supporting her and her neighbors.
“The timing was perfect for people to come together, so say one person did this is like saying one man is an island, it is just not true,” Bragg said.
Bragg credits her faith as well as her friends.
“God gave us what we need to help each other,” she said. “If there is a common reason for people to group together, they will. No person can do anything themselves.