The Lonely War Of A Good Angry Man

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In eastern Kentucky, where the mountains are as steep as any in Appalachia, strip mines arc contoured around the mountainsides like gigantic snakes. The cuts are L-shaped, with the “highwall” (the vertical side) exposing raw rock to heights of thirty to fifty feet. (In many cases these immense manmade cliffs completely isolate entire mountaintops.) The coal is stripped from the flat shelf, or “bench,” of the cut, and since there is no convenient place to pile the “overburden” (the topsoil, rock, and clay that cover the coal seam), it simply gets shoved over the brow of the bench, smashing or smothering every tree, or anything else, that happens to stand below. (“Spoil bank” is the strip miner’s term for the huge heap that builds up.) As a result, about three acres of mountain are “disturbed” for every acre actually mined. Then roads are needed to get at the coal, and building them tears up another eight acres or so for every mile. And since there are generally two or three seams at different elevations, little of the average mountainside is spared.

Using the conventional equipment, a crew of seven can keep a strip mine advancing along the face of a Kentucky mountain at a rate of about one hundred yards a week. With the coal market what it is, most cuts are worked by two twelve-hour shifts. At dark the big headlights go on, the violence continues.

But the real shattering of the ecology of a mountain begins after the strip miners have come and gone, and the resulting troubles continue for years at a cost no one studying the problem is as yet able to estimate. Even before the rains hit them, the spoil banks begin to move. Full of churned-up slate and mangled trees, spoil banks are highly unstable affairs and slowly succumb to the pull of gravity with a dry, sliding sound one can actually hear. Then, when the inevitable mountain storms strike, rushing water slices into them like a knife. Frequently, like the giant slag heap at Aberfan, in Wales, a spoil bank will let go altogether and thunder down on whatever lies below, which in several instances has been somebody’s house. Landslides will block streams and highways, and in the words of a government report, “economic and esthetic values [are] seriously impaired.” But apart from spoil bank damage, even ordinary erosion will cause extraordinary damage in no time. Water races off the mountain loaded with silt, gravel, and the deadly sulphuric acid that drains out of exposed coal or its overlying strata. Creeks that a boy could leap over only a few years ago are now as broad as two-lane roads, blasted out in a way reminiscent of the hydraulic mines of the Old West. Other creeks are so clogged with sludge that they have to be cleaned out two or three times a year at considerable cost to the state. (Studies indicate that the annual sediment yield from strip-mined lands in Kentucky is as much as one thousand times that of undisturbed mountain areas.)

Slimy with mustard-colored coal silt and poisoned by mine acid, thousands of Kentucky creeks and streams are quite literally “dead”; nothing lives in them; the putrid water is good for nothing, and it stains and poisons just about anything it comes in contact with.

Farms a hundred miles or more from the mountains are flooded every spring by rivers thick with silt from such tributaries. On the Kentucky River, for example, on the other side of the state, annual floods have been part of its cycle for as long as anyone can recall. But fifty years ago the spring floods were rejuvenating. Like the Nile, the Kentucky bestowed on every acre it touched a fine, thin layer of silt rich with organic matter, very fertile and very welcome. Now, because of bad farming, logging, and strip mining on the upland slopes, the same river leaves a fine, thin film of yellow clay that hardens to the consistency of concrete and is, as one farmer says, about as fertile.

Less obvious but equally serious are the profound scars left on the spirits of the mountain people, who see their country, one of the most beautiful regions in America, being dismembered before their very eyes. Farms that have been in the same families for generations are made worthless in a day or two. Fine timber is destroyed as though it had no value. Public roads, long believed to be the salvation of so-called backward sections, are ruined by the immense coal trucks. Some roads built only a few years ago look fifty years old. Surrounded by such ugly abuse of the land, many people become ever more slovenly. Abandoned strip pits are used as dumping grounds for garbage and wrecked cars. Spoil heaps catch fire (often from burning rubbish) and smoulder for months, even years, casting an evil-looking, vile-smelling haze over the landscape.

As might be expected, the people who suffer most from such tragic by-products of strip mining are the poorest, least educated, least articulate, and least able to comprehend why, exactly, things are happening as they are, or what, if anything, can possibly be done about it. More than any other one man, Harry Caudill speaks for them.