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'Deep Down': Film looks at destruction caused by surface coal mining

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 1, 2010 - "I had no idea." That's the first thing people say when they actually observe the coal mining technique known as mountaintop removal, says an environmental advocate in the documentary "Deep Down," which will be screened Thursday at the Missouri History Museum.

When it comes to coal, most Americans probably picture underground tunnels, so the documentary may surprise viewers with its eye-opening look at surface mining in the storied Appalachian Mountains.

The film by Jen Gilomen and Sally Rubin presents breathtaking views of the region, juxtaposing gorgeous naturescapes against footage of mining operations blasting the tops off mountains to get to the coal beneath. The free event is part of the Community Cinema Series, a partnership between the History Museum and KETC. A panel discussion will follow.

In Appalachia, where coal remains the industrial king, this growing technique for surface mining has put hundreds of communities at the crossroads: Will cash-strapped residents who have earned their livings for generations as miners allow mountaintop removal in their own backyards, when weighed against the environmental impact?

"I hate strip-mining, but I love all my friends that have jobs because of it," says a woman in the film.

"Texas has oil. Idaho has potatoes. We have coal," says another.

Opponents of the process argue that the clear-cutting of forests and subsequent blasting through the earth below permanently scar the region and will further the decline in air and water quality for neighboring urban areas.

"You can't put the mountain back," says a volunteer pilot who provides aerial tours of a mining area that borders Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. "The public ignores this for the sake of cheap electricity, and that's very disturbing to me."