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Synopsis

Beverly May and Terry Ratliff grew up like kin on opposite sides of a mountain ridge in eastern Kentucky.  Now in their fifties, the two find themselves in the midst of a debate dividing their community and the world: who controls, consumes, and benefits from our planet’s shrinking supply of natural resources?

While Beverly organizes her neighbors and leads a legal fight to stop Miller Brothers Coal Company from advancing into her hollow, Terry considers signing away the mining rights to his backyard—a decision that could destroy not only the two friends’ homes, but the peace and environment surrounding their community. The two friends soon find themselves caught in the middle of a contentious battle over energy and the wealth and environmental destruction it represents.

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The story

DeepDown_train_approaching“In a couple years, this could all be gone,” says Beverly May, standing on a ridge above her home in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, where her ancestors settled over two centuries ago to form what is now Maytown. An old-time fiddler, Beverly has just finished building what she describes as her “dream home.” But two weeks later, Beverly learns that a mining company plans to create a mountaintop removal coal mine in Maytown's mountains. “And I knew,” she sighs, “that this was extremely bad news.” As our global demand for energy increases, no stone is left unturned -- and it appeared that Maytown could be next.

That was fall of 2006. It is now summer of 2007, and Beverly is gearing up for a square dance with the region’s best old-time musicians. Beverly’s life-long friend and neighbor, Terry Ratliff, an intense bachelor with a long grey ponytail, watches Beverly from afar. As the music winds down, he approaches her for a chat, and the two friends dance in the emptying hall.

Terry-at-home_viewTerry is a carpenter and chair maker. Like Beverly, he learned his craft from the elders of the region, felling trees in his backyard and carving chairs without mechanized tools. “This whole thing – the house, the land – it’s all a dream for me,” he tells us. It is this land that the mining company wants, and Terry’s willingness to even consider signing a lease shocks Beverly. “I don’t think he has any idea what he is about to lose — not only his land, but his identity as a mountain man. He’s got a lot at stake here,” Beverly sighs. For now, this point of contention is unspoken between the friends, who are resolved to leave the political out of the personal. The closer the coal company gets, however, the harder that becomes.

On October 24, 2007, a young woman steps up to the microphone in a crowded auditorium in Hazard, Kentucky, thirty minutes from Maytown. It is a federal Office of Surface Mining hearing on the Bush administration's proposed elimination of the “stream buffer zone,” which protects streams from mining. “Texas has oil, Idaho has potatoes, and we have coal!  If you’re from Southeastern Kentucky, that’s our heritage here,” she says. The miners, who depend on the industry for their livelihood, cheer. Speaking last, Beverly addresses the miners directly: “You are not my enemy, and I’m not yours.  We’re all victims of the same coal companies. It’s just that you’re on top of the mountain, and I’m at the bottom.”

Surrounded by forest in his backyard, Terry raises an axe and splits a log. “I’m not sure where I stand,” he contemplates. "Do I want to own a little thumbnail of land if my neighbors all around me get theirs stripped?" A car pulls up the drive, and Terry greets Rick Handshoe, a friend of Beverly's who lives next to another Miller Brothers mine, dealing for years with blasting, dust, and contaminated water. The men go inside for coffee and examine the lease Terry has just been offered. "Things like this make me question everything," says Terry, pointing to some misleading figures. "I'm not saying you shouldn't lease," says Rick. "Just get what you deserve." Terry lets out a long, worried sigh.

Beverly_MudCreek_PlanningIn January, 2008, Beverly files a “Lands Unsuitable for Mining” petition, one of the few legal courses of action available to prevent an area from being mined. So far, she tells us, no such petition has ever been successful. “My very worst fear,” she says, “is that if we fail, this place could cease to exist as a community.” Beverly visits her neighbors, trying with limited success to convince them to join her and speak out. While concerned about mining impacts, many are worried for the jobs of their relatives, neighbors, and friends.

Anxious over his decision, Terry stops by Beverly’s, and they chat at her dining room table. He seeks her sympathy, but Beverly holds her ground, and the debate heats up.  “I’m gonna be in that mine, Bev, whether I like it or not. Everybody has their price,” Terry says.  “That’s not true that everyone has a price,” argues Beverly. “That’s only because you have a price.”  “As long as you got plenty of dollars,” Terry retorts, leaving in frustration.

In winter of 2008, Office of Surface Mining employees pace Maytown's high school gymnasium, preparing for the much-anticipated Lands Unsuitable for Mining hearing. Miners file in, taking over one side of the bleachers. Company representatives, concerned citizens, and Beverly's family members sign up to speak, and the meeting is tense. Terry arrives late, but catches impassioned speeches from both sides, including Beverly's final plea to save her home: "You figure that every landowner has a price for which they'll allow their homeplace to be destroyed, but you're wrong."

Three months later, Beverly receives the letter containing news of her bittersweet victory.  The judge awards several concessions, effectively preventing mountaintop removal mining in Maytown.  But Beverly knows that while Maytown may be safe for now, our demand for coal is ever-increasing.  Unless we find alternatives -- for energy, and for the economic future of Appalachia -- the  environmental and human devastation will continue, in Appalachia and around the world.  Meanwhile, the company uses Beverly's words against Terry, telling him his deal is off because his land is "unsuitable for mining."

In the end, Beverly's actions affect Terry's life and their entire community, just as the actions we take as individuals can impact faraway communities like Maytown. We see in Beverly and Terry’s struggles the dichotomous world-views that on one hand, a single human has insignificant power in the context of industrialization; and on the other, that humans do have power--not just to keep our lights on, but to save the only world the human race has to inhabit.

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