Inside the Mind of a Mining Town

Deep Down, a documentary film, looks at the pressures within a small town that's faced with the prospect (and profits) of mountaintop-removal mining.

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Deep Down is a great story out of the heart of Coal Country, and a different kind of documentary. Directed by Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin, the film is about mountaintop removal mining and the effect it’s had on Maytown, a close-knit community in Floyd County, Kentucky.

What makes Deep Down different from most portrayals of strip mining is that this film presents the story from inside the community rather than with outsiders protesting an environmental issue.  Not all protesters carry signs or chain themselves to mining equipment. The opposition here is real, part of everyday lives.

The film features Beverly May and Terry Ratliff, two neighbors on Wilson Creek.  Beverly is a single woman who works as a health care professional. It appears her job affords her the necessities and some of the wants in life.  She has no children.

Terry is a back-to-nature guy.  He lives in the woods in a log cabin he built. He wears his hair long in a ponytail. He has a daughter. Terry owns a small business and struggles to keep it afloat.

An agent from a locally-owned mining business tells Terry he has $75,000 worth of coal on his property, on a ridge above Wilson Creek. The agent proposes a lease: the coal will be extracted using the mountaintop removal method.

It’s Beverly, a descendant of local settlers, who begins the movement to block mountaintop removal on Wilson Creek. The film shows how intricately lives in a small coal-mining community are intertwined. Neighbors depend on each other for comfort, support, entertainment, religion. When something as threatening or financially rewarding as a mountaintop removal mine site comes along, cracks appear.

Coal mining and coal-related jobs have been the core of Eastern Kentucky’s economy for a century.

It is important to understand that coal is the common bond in these Appalachian communities.  Each person is connected in some way to the coal industry, directly or indirectly. They work in the mines or in related occupations; they, their relatives and friends live off of coal. It’s King and any action taken against mining is seen as imperiling to a whole way of life. Taking a stand against coal can be dangerous; sometimes friendships are broken forever.

As the filmmakers show, these Terry and Beverly are good friends, close neighbors, even clogging partners. Both main subjects in Deep Down are interesting and likeable people, as they make their cases. Terry needs the money from the coal lease. He has no retirement plan or health insurance. Beverly wants to protect her heritage, her land, her Appalachian mountain culture. Mountaintop removal wipes out everything in its path; Deep Down shows that a culture could be lost and lives changed forever when people are uprooted.

Viewers get an inside look at what goes on in a movement orchestrated by ordinary citizens.  Beverly quietly researches the legal grounds for presenting her case that Wilson Creek is unsuitable for mining. There are no government officials at the state capital or in D.C. to run to for support.  she and a few other mining opponents make the trip to whitesburg to consult with non-profit attorneys at the Appalachian Law Center.

At a public hearing, the coal operator and Kentucky Coal Association’s past president Bill Caylor make speeches appealing to the miners in the crowd to support the permit for mountaintop removal on the ridge above Wilson Creek. They play up the employment opportunities and the bountiful financial side of the operation.

Wilson Creek resident Terry Ratliff is torn between leasing his land to strip-miners for the income and preserving the mountaintop above his home.

Although many Kentuckians see coal as King, the backbone of the Appalachian economy, others reflect on the region’s high rate of poverty and the environmental problems citizens now face as a direct consequence of surface mining.

Viewers will see magnificent scenery — the steep, rugged hills of eastern Kentucky cloaked in autumn’s red, golds, yellows and greens.  And they may enjoy the mountain music and old time clogging. All this is a risk. Without other livelihoods, the people will be forced away, but as mountaintop removal mining continues, their land and water are destroyed.

“WHY,” one woman asks in Deep Down, “is coal the only job that we have?”

 

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