Dig Too Deep

“I nod, but my mind’s fixed on something else—something abnormal in the valley. Something that might be causing all those health problems. And that something is bright orange.”

Liberty, a junior in High School, moves from Washington D.C. to a small mountain town Ebbotsville, Kentucky. While her mom is in jail waiting for the trial for her violent political activism, Liberty moves into a country mountain house to stay with her grandmother. She quickly discovers her grandmother’s health is declining. Ebbotsville has agreed to mountaintop removal for coal mining which uses explosives to dump the top of the mountain down the valley. This mountaintop removal and mining has turned one side of the mountain’s water orange. Liberty asks questions about the mining but is shut down by her boyfriend, Cole, and other residents who tell her she doesn’t belong there. Liberty’s grandmother is diagnosed with lung cancer, and the doctor hints at many other health impairments happening to residents of the mountain. Liberty starts researching mountaintop removal but no one in town seems willing to help. As Liberty experiences, many families have little money to live on outside of food stamps and the mine is the one reliable job in the county, so many are actively opposed to questioning the mine’s place. Liberty decides to take action by filing a complaint with the mining company, Peabody, and discovers that Peabody is controlling the county commissioners by paying them off when she tries to get them to step in. She finds an ally in Dobber, a classmate whose father was fired from the mine. Although grandmother’s barn gets burned down and someone hangs her dog in a tree, the police do not take any action. Liberty and Dobber decide they need more help. When Liberty’s mom is released and cleared of charges, Liberty’s group plan to steal explosives from the mine and use them to fight violence with violence. They are caught though. Dobber’s father gives Liberty documents that prove the water tested on the mountain is not safe and Liberty’s grandmother ends up dying. Liberty’s new plan is to send the proof to her friend Iris who has an internship at a newspaper company and have them record a conversation with the head of the mining company. They ask the head of the mining company to stop the mountaintop removal practices, take responsibility for the water pollution clean-up, and compensate residents each with one hundred thousand dollars. Liberty’s group has the proof to start an investigation, but the head of Peabody ends up agreeing to their demands. After Liberty and her friends threaten to release the documentation and recording of their discussion if the CEO breaks the agreement, she and her mother (who she has discovered she is more similar to than she had thought) go back to D.C.

Disclaimer: There is swearing throughout the book while the characters are upset. Liberty almost has sex with Cole in the middle of the book, and there is suggestive language to describe the event. The book also includes physical violence and animal cruelty.

Dig Too Deep offers an in-depth exploration of the slow violence of extractive mining on local communities and ecosystems, highlighting the need for collective action against ecocide perpetrated by fossil fuel industries. The focus of the book is the practice of mountaintop removal (MTR) or coal mining, whose negative externalities include pollution, environmental degradation (only minimally explored in relation to wildlife), and a range of environmental health risks for human residents such as cancer, kidney disease, birth defects, and others that Liberty researches and presents in chapter 22. “This isn’t some school project,” Liberty protests when the commission patronizingly dismisses her research as if it does apply to their community. “Those numbers I read off earlier, they’re real. They have faces and families. They’re the people you know” (136). In this and other episodes, Dig Too Deep captures the key paradox of extractivism and environmental injustice: coming into impoverished communities, fossil fuel companies promise to bring in jobs (and are often the largest employers, at last for a time), but their operations are harmful to people and the environment in the long term. This illustrates the workings of extractivism and slow violence, in which a few of the people in the company get rich off of the community’s resources while most of the people in the community will be left with environmental degradation for decades to come. Even when the mine is actually reducing jobs, the community in Ebbotsville don’t want to acknowledge the health issues mining brings. When Liberty tries to provide statistical evidence to Cole, the son of a mine worker, he denies them outright. “Studies my ass,” he scoffs. “That’s nothing but a pack of lies.” Later, he’s even more pointed: “All these facts and figures from some crazy liberal website? Nobody wants to hear that shit.” The novel suggests that this denialism is often founded on the promise of economic opportunity. This may explain why the people of the community are never brought into the action to stop the mine. In fact, they tend to support money-hungry Peabody to the point that no one would act in solidarity with the youth activists.

This aspect informs the resolution. Criticism of youth climate activism often relies on claims that young people are too naive to be knowledgeable or politically savvy enough to resist climate destruction. Dig Too Deep counters this by suggesting that young people are actually more capable than adults of resisting this destruction precisely because they are more keenly aware of their social position. That said, Liberty is presented as an outsider and is motivated by personal harm—her grandmother’s declining health—rather than the good of the community. Building on this motivation, the book explores different avenues for activism Liberty takes: from the legal route of filing complaints to the illegal route of a (failed) violent action against Peabody (see ecotage). The ending of the book questions the efficacy of legal action (see environmental law, EPA) by offering a blackmail-style solution through an unofficial settlement: Instead of sharing documented evidence of the mining company’s falsified water reports with EPA and the media, Liberty and her team choose to keep the compromising materials as a guarantee that Peabody will keep his end of the deal of stopping MTR operations, extending city water to everyone in the valley, and giving financial recompense to “anyone who was given a falsified water report and develops health issues” (252). This resolution opens many questions to discuss with your students. Did the activists settle for money rather than for justice? If Peabody is not exposed, will similar MTR practices continue elsewhere in the country? How will the Ebbotsville community ever learn about the harm the mine has caused? Lastly, does the resolution reflect the actual power and limits of youth activism or does it suggest that settling with money and restitution was the best avenue compared to a lengthy legal process available within the existing neoliberal system? While the novel is successful in representing the slow violence and socio-cultural complexities of MTR, the choice to not include the larger community in seeking justice and confronting the truth about the damage of mountaintop removal mining may reinforces a message that mobilizing action against ecocide is something that is best done by an individual—an “enlightened outsider” like Liberty—rather by a community: a model that privileges individual agency at the expense of community agency.

Another aspect of the novel is that the environment is not looked at as needing to be restored until the people are sick, which could start conversations about anthropocentrism and human supremacy. The book does bring up some sadness over biodiversity loss and the loss of nature in Liberty’s grandmother’s yard, but it does not explore how mountaintop removal impacts plants and animals. The mining company does not plan to restore the ecosystem after they finish (see clean-up operations, reforestation). Students could do research on restoring mining environments and requests Liberty could be making to the mining company for the environment.

©2023 ClimateLit (Hannah Hein)


Publisher: Albert Whitman & Company, 2016

Pages: 272

ISBN: 978-0807515815

Audience: Rebels (14-older)

Format: Novels

Topics: Animal Cruelty, Biodiversity Loss, Clean-up Operations, Climate Change Denial, Coal, Coal Mining, Collective Action, Ecocide, Ecological Restoration, Ecosystems, Ecotage, Environmental Degradation, Environmental Health Risks, Environmental Injustice, Environmental Law, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Extractivism, Fossil Fuels, Industry, Mountaintop Removal (MTR), Nature, Pollution, Reforestation, Slow Violence, Wildlife, Youth Climate Activism