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The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man
In the hills of Kentucky a small-town lawyer named Harry Caudill battles to save his homeland from the ravages of strip mining
December 1969 | Volume 21, Issue 1
Still, to a large degree his feelings are understandable, since Letcher County has been the subject of numerous articles and television shows, including one by the B.B.C., and a film for the Houston Hemisfair (during the making of which the leader of the film crew was shot and killed by an elderly local man who did not want his property photographed for such purposes). Why so much attention has been focused on Letcher County—when there are dozens of other places in Appalachia where the same or similar problems are just as dramatically on display is readily explained: Harry Caudill. His own magazine articles and books have been read in New York and Washington by those who make editorial decisions, and from what they read it appears that in Whitesburg there is a unique man, someone who can talk intelligently about the problems, someone who belongs there and should therefore know whereof he speaks; and so to Whitesburg they go. In July, when C.B.S. was looking for places to show what America was up to as the first men landed on the moon, one of the places picked was Whitesburg, because Bernard Birnbaum, a C.B.S. producer, had read Caudill’sbook, later met Caudill and listened to him talk, and had been immensely impressed. (The program, tentatively entitled “A Day in the Life of the United States,” will probably be shown sometime this month or next.)
In the minds of some people in Whitesburg, including many of the business people, drawing such attention is a grave mistake. A coal operator like Bill Sturgill, a thickset man who generally wears sunglasses and who has known Caudill since college days, says he simply cannot understand why Caudill behaves as he does. When Caudill was campaigning for strip-mine legislation it was Sturgill, as much as anyone, who led the attack against him, claiming that if the law were passed it would immediately put every strip miner out of business. He stressed how good strip mining is for the local economy. His 287 employees were earning anywhere from $7,500 to $12,000 a year, he claimed. He was making annual purchases from some 104 different companies and individuals amounting to more than six million dollars. Then he bored in on his adversary. “It is still a matter of record,” he wrote in a letter to the Courier-Journal , “that Mr. Caudill does not support the economy or provide job opportunity, but rather has made much personal gain from advertising world-wide the ills and misfortunes of his friends and neighbors.”
For Sturgill and other operators the idea that there may be something fundamentally wrong with strip mining seems almost impossible to grasp. As they see it, they are helping to serve the nation’s energy needs; they are making dollars move in their communities; they are making what seems to them otherwise valueless land pay. Coal is now Kentucky’s number-one cash crop, and they take pride in helping to make that possible.
Wendell Berry is convinced that such men are blinded by the jargon of free enterprise—”as if,” he says, “the freedom of free enterprise implied freedom from moral responsibility.” Loyal Jones believes that the problem rests on the pernicious notion that people and the land are there to be exploited, used up, and consumed, and that the roots of such beliefs can be traced to frontier times. Harry Caudill believes strip mining is symbolic of something perhaps still more serious. “I think it tells us more than anything except war about the darker side of our nature. I remember coming home from the war on a hospital ship and worrying about that. I began to think that perhaps that darker side would prevail. This devastation of the earth is a manifestation of that tragic, base side, the side that in the Bible is represented by Satan and his works.”
Caudill’s own conviction is that strip mining ought to be the subject of a national policy, that federal laws should be enacted as soon as possible and strictly enforced. (“The current Kentucky law and the way it is being handled is a little like attacking a crocodile with a cornstalk,” he says.) He would like to see strip mining outlawed anywhere that the slope of a mountainside exceeds twenty degrees. He also wants strip mining to be authorized only where total reclamation can be carried on promptly and effectively. The system he wants put into operation is one used in several European countries, where, he emphasizes, they do a superior job of restoration. In England, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, among other places, the topsoil is carefully put aside and the subsoil and rock kept separate. Once the coal has been removed, rock, subsoil, and topsoil all go back in their original order, the layers being compacted during the process. “There’s no reason why we can’t do that if they do,” he says.
The way to pay for this, Caudill believes, is to raise the price of coal. “The way it is now, coal is undercutting the price of other fuels at a hidden cost to tremendous stretches of the American land. And,” he adds, “the same thing is going to happen to Canada. The Japanese are going to get cheap Canadian coal in colossal amounts, while Canada gets the ruined land.”
Caudill would also like to see massive amounts of money spent on reclaiming “orphan mines,” abandoned strip mines that represent most of the land destroyed to date—“enough,” he points out, “to make a swath a mile wide extending from Times Square to the Golden Gate and back again almost to the Nevada border.” More than likely the money would have to come from the federal government. At Grim’s suggestion there is now serious talk about getting the T.V.A. to provide funds out of the fifty million dollars or so that the Authority turns back to the federal treasury each year.