The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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Ten years ago very little strip mining had even been tried in Kentucky. Ten years before that there was virtually none at all. But now the bulldozers, the scoops, the diesel shovels, the mammoth coal augers are churning away day and night. In steady procession gigantic Mack trucks creep off the mountains, their brakes crying against the weight of upwards of twenty-five tons of coal each. When they roar through Whitesburg, the ground trembles along Main Street. Of the one hundred million tons of coal being mined annually in the state of Kentucky, half comes from strip mines, and in the next few years that percentage is certain to increase. Moreover, much of the strip mining is done on land owned by corporations located outside Kentucky, and the major customer for the coal is the Tennessee Valley Authority, long considered a classic example of an enlightened user of land.

Most of the strip mining is carried on by small, independent “operators,” as they are called, local men and men from out of state who have the forty thousand dollars to lease the necessary equipment. Nearly all such operators are also lessees of the big coal-land companies. Many of these companies are faceless, little-known entities, but others are such well-known giants as Occidental Petroleum, National Steel, U.S. Steel, Bethlehem Steel, and International Harvester, all of which are based outside Kentucky and all of which own, or own other companies that own, vast tracts of the state’s mineral resources. The big corporations, then, rarely do the actual strip mining themselves (and their public relations offices stress this quite emphatically); that part of the process is left to the local operators. Thus it has been for some time. The result is that mountain people, rightly or not, believe the hidden hand of absentee corporations is behind virtually every move by the strip miners. Mountaineers have an old festering hatred of big corporations and big-city money; and increasingly among some of the young there is the more modern attitude that the “system” is rotten and ought to be destroyed.

Yet the fact remains that strip mining happens to be the quickest, easiest, and cheapest method that has been devised thus far to get coal; and, for the operator at least, it is an exceedingly profitable business. So not just in Kentucky but in a dozen other states strip mining continues at a brutal pace.∗ The only reliable figures available on surface mining are from the U.S. Department of the Interior and are, unfortunately, five years out of date; but as of January 1, 1965, an estimated 3.2 million acres—more than the total acreage of the state of Connecticut—had been “disturbed” by surface mining. About 41 per cent of this was attributable to strip mining for coal. In Kentucky 119,200 acres had been strip mined, 192,000 acres in West Virginia, 212,800 acres in Ohio, and in Pennsylvania an incredible 302,400 acres. Since nearly all such acreage was mined before any kind of reclamation laws had been put into effect, at least two thirds of the land was totally ruined, despite the government’s use of the mild term “disturbed.”

Further, with the nation’s need for fossil fuels increasing steadily, and with innumerable new electrical power plants buying and burning even the lowest quality coal, there seems every likelihood that things will get worse. Where once coal was a seasonal commodity, it is now in demand all year round, due in good part to the electrical power required for air conditioning. “We can sell anything that’s black,” says one operator. In the northern corner of Letcher County, for example, the Beth-Elkhorn coal company, which has its headquarters in Pennsylvania and is owned by Bethlehem Steel, has announced plans to tear up a thousand acres of choice woodland to “recover” some seven million tons of coal. According to statements made by one company official, the strip mine cuts on the land will run a total distance of somewhere between 120 and 150 miles. (Numerous Kentuckians find a kind of gallows humor in the fact that Bethlehem is currently running a costly advertising campaign—a series of what are called “conscience ads in the trade to tell the American public how much it is doing; in behalf of the environment.) The biggest independent operator in Perry County, Bill Sturgill, boss of a number of strip-mining companies, now has a fifteen-year contract to supply T.V.A. with two million tons of strip-mined coal peryear, all of it for just one power plant.

For Harry Caudill the seriousness of all this goes beyond the pitiful ugliness, or the bitter irony that those who live with the ravaged land get virtually no share of the coal or the money made from it. The ecological consequences of even one small strip mine are extraordinarily varied, complex, and damaging.