Mountaintop-Removal Coal Mining Hits ‘Deep Down’

PBS documentary "Deep Down" looks at a cordial, intense dispute over mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia.
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In the opening minutes of their documentary Deep Down, filmmakers Sally Rubin and Jen Gilomen take us down a winding back road in eastern Kentucky. It's fall, and the leaves are changing, adding to the idyllic beauty of the mountainous surroundings. But around one bend is a rectangular sign bearing an ominous message: "Blasting Schedule." It might as well add, "Enjoy the view while it lasts."

For this is coal country, and in recent years the industry has come to realize the quickest, cheapest way to extract the precious commodity is to simply blast away. Why bother with digging a dirty, dangerous mine when you can use explosives to tear off the top of a mountain, exposing all that lovely black fossil fuel underneath?

More than 500 Appalachian mountains have been decimated in this way. But Beverly May, a fourth-generation resident of the region, is determined such desecration will not happen in her hollow. A nurse practitioner and community activist, she is one of two protagonists in this compelling and fair-minded film, which makes its national debut Nov. 23 on PBS and brings to life a local battle with wide-ranging implications.

The other is Terry Ratliff, a woodworker and chair maker. He lives in a log house he built in the woods — a structure, he notes ruefully, that represents his attempt to escape the rat race. But the dollar-driven world catches up with him in the form of a coal company representative who comes knocking one day with an admittedly tempting offer.

The company wants to lease a small plot of land Ratliff owns just up the hill from his home. The structure is 1,100 feet above sea level; the company plans to blast the mountain down to 1,200 feet. But the representative assures him there is no danger to his house, and Ratliff, like pretty much everyone in this poverty-stricken area, could use the money. He is, understandably, torn.

May, on the other hand, is certain of her stance. "You don't regulate an abomination," she declares. "You stop it." She engages in a two-front battle against the coal company, organizing reluctant citizens to join her in petitioning a state regulatory body and quietly attempting to persuade Ratliff not to sell. "There's plenty of things you can't put a dollar value on," she argues. "If you have plenty of dollars," he replies.

Their discussions are low-key, cordial and respectful. Ratliff (who would be played by Sam Shepard in a feature film) doesn't see an absolute need to keep the landscape pristine. "This land is resilient," he says, noting that other mined areas have been returned to nature with some success. On the other hand, he shares May's concerns about polluting the watershed and worries about how the altered topography would impact the water flows during the next heavy rainfall. "This is not an easy thing," he says quietly, weighing every word.

If it isn't obvious by now, these are thoughtful, eloquent individuals who couldn't be farther from the stereotype of ignorant hillbillies. No one belittles anyone else's views, and everyone does his or her best to understand others' concerns. "There is an attitude in Appalachia of live and let live," noted co-director Rubin, who lives in Los Angeles but has family ties to Tennessee. "You may disagree with someone, but they're still your neighbor, and it's not your job to tell anybody else how to live their life."

Still more clichés fall as May's campaign gathers steam, culminating in a hearing before a state board to determine whether their mountain is suitable for this form of mining. There are passionate pleas on both sides of the argument, and God is often invoked. But even in the Bible Belt, faith leads different people to different conclusions: Some argue the almighty put that coal there for humans to use, while others say people should protect the natural world God entrusted them with.

One woman makes a pertinent point in response to those who argue blast mining is an economic necessity. Why, she asks, is the local economy still so fragile and dependent upon coal after more than a century of mining? There are no nouveau riche Beverly Hillbillies here; if anyone is getting rich off these resources, it's not the locals.

The filmmakers tell their story with sensitivity and a strong visual sense. In one particularly arresting image, May and Ratliff, who are longtime neighbors and friends, perform a traditional mountain folk dance in which they come close but never touch. Their unassuming artistry conveys a combination of attraction and wariness, making it a vivid artifact of the Appalachian culture the mining is threatening to destroy.

Rubin and Gilomen lay out two primary goals for the documentary on their "Deep Down" website. They hope viewers will come away with a more accurate picture of mountain people and give some thought to the actual cost of "cheap" energy. The highly observant Ratliff notes at one point that the greenhouse gases emitted by burning coal (the dirtiest of fuels in that respect) is a much bigger problem than the destruction of certain mountains, or even certain mountain communities.

But climate change remains an amorphous concept for most people. In contrast, what's happening to these mountains and their inhabitants is immediate, tangible and heartbreaking. "Often people will come back to us a week after they've seen the film and report they've been turning off their lights," Rubin reports. "That's a little thing, but it's nice to know people have been moved to action."

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