At the very core of our national debate over climate change, alternatives fuels and the existence of so-called “clean coal technology” comes a new and enlightening documentary that challenges conventional thinking about the mining and operation of coal companies that few people ever see.
Deep Down: A Story from the Heart of Coal Country is an education for all, even Kentuckians who believe they’ve heard it before.
In discussing an appropriate question for candidates during this year’s spring primary election, a friend offered this thought: The unfolding story of this country’s worst oil spill in history, as of yet uncontained and growing daily in the Gulf of Mexico, is familiar to Kentuckians because of our experience with what coal has taught us to expect. Disasters of devastating proportions can happen when things go wrong around the “balance” of meeting our energy needs and protecting our natural environment.
Balance may be at the heart of Deep Down, where we find ordinary Appalachian citizens at the center of a belligerent community struggle over a mountaintop removal coal mine. Some might argue that although it doesn’t generate the same kind of headlines as the BP oil spill, mountaintop removal or, as the coal industry calls this method of coal extraction, surface mining, practiced in Eastern Kentucky presents a similar picture of the delicate balance between humans and the environment. Many Kentuckians see coal as the backbone of the Appalachian economy; others point to the region’s high poverty rates and environmental cataclysm as evidence that coal has failed as an economic driver for the state.
With verdant vistas and sweeping landscapes of both gorgeous, forest-filled mountains and mountaintops being scrapped and shoveled for coal, filmmakers Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin introduce us to two main characters and the citizens of Maytown, Kentucky. Beverly May is a health care professional and descendant of local settlers who leads the community’s effort to keep a coal company out of her “holler.” May’s longtime friend and neighbor Terry Ratliff is being courted by the coal company with cash. He’s being offered thousands of dollars for his coal-rich property, which sits high on a ridge overlooking the peaks and valleys of Floyd County.
The film unfolds like two cloggers taking their turn around the dance floor; evil looms, cloaked as the coal company seeking to buy up private land to turn into a mountaintop mining site; conflict emerges as the landowner waffles back and forth over selling to the coal company; and a proud, passionate heroine works tirelessly day and night to collect petitioners and speak boldly against the villain coal, all the while playing sweet mountain melodies on her companion fiddle.
The producers make an attempt at balancing the opinions of those opposed to mountaintop mining and those employed in the mining industry. But overall the film tilts in the direction of those opposed. At a state permit hearing for the coal company, some dynamic statements from both sides add drama to the scene:
“Folks, if people think our economy is bad now, just realize how bad it would be without the mining industry in this area.”
“When does the time come when employment doesn’t pit community and workers against each other?”
“Coal has always put bread on my table and it still does!”
As a recent newspaper editorial surmised, the people of the Appalachian mountains and the Louisiana bayous have a lot more in common than fiddle tunes and distinctive accents. In a sensitive and beautiful portrayal of life in a part of Kentucky that few Kentuckians have ever seen, Deep Down puts a human face on both the coal industry and the community of believers fighting desperately to save their land and the mountains of Eastern Kentucky.
Bill Goodman is the host and managing editor of “Kentucky Tonight” and “One to One” on Kentucky Educational Television. He is a Master of Fine Arts in Writing candidate at Spalding University.