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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
In 1965 he helped found the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People, the region’s first serious effort to organize public protest. He also deserves a major part of the credit for Kentucky’s various strip-mining laws, which he fought for long and hard back at a time when taking such stands in eastern Kentucky was a lonely and dangerous business. (In 1954, when the state’s first attempt at a strip-mining law was up before the legislature in Frankfort, Caudill was the only representative from eastern Kentucky to vote for it.) The latest law, passed in 1966, is said to be the best in the country, but Caudill himself now thinks it is nowhere near tough enough. He is highly skeptical about how well it is being enforced and likes to quote a friend who says it is a little like legalizing rape, so long as the rapist first agrees to restore his victim to her original condition. Caudill also emphasizes that nothing whatever is being done about the land that was strip-mined prior to 1966, which means about 100,000 acres.
The law has been revised and improved some since 1966. Among other things it prohibits strip mining on slopes steeper than twenty-eight degrees; it requires that the operator grade back spoil banks to about the slope of the mountain and seed the mined area before moving on; and it empowers the Division of Reclamation in Frankfort to suspend an operator’s permit or fine him one thousand dollars for each day that he fails to abide by these and other regulations.
A colorful brochure issued by the state and signed by Governor Louie B. Nunn shows strip-mine benches in Letcher and adjoining counties where fruit trees have been planted and appear to be surviving, where a nitrogen-building green cover, a legume known as Sericea lespedeza , grows waist deep, and where a highwall has been so effectively back-graded and replanted as to be unnoticeable. Such places do indeed exist in eastern Kentucky and are indicative of what can be done. But they are very few and far between and are greatly outnumbered by places where reclamation has failed. As the reclamation people themselves readily admit, many strip mines, and particularly those along Kentucky’s so-called “hot” scams (in which the acid content is extremely high), cannot be restored no matter what is done to them, short of trucking in new topsoil, which no operator is about to try and which might not work anyway. Even where the conditions are ideal for the prescribed reseeding program (a solution of seed, water, and fertilizer is sprayed over the exposed spoil), there is, as one reclamation official says, no hiding a strip mine.
But the cosmetics aside, still less progress has been made in checking erosion and acid drainage, or in preventing spoil-bank slides. Small dams have been thrown up to catch silt, but nearly all have proved pathetically ineffective. And though the chief reclamation objective—to get a quick green cover down—is the best solution to the over-all erosion problem, only a small percentage of the cover ever amounts to anything, or at least in time enough to do the job. A walk along most “reclaimed” mines is a discouraging experience. Where tiny trees have been planted, twenty are dead stubs for every one that is green. To judge by the stony, water-gullied clay all about, the heaps of rock, and the pools of foul water, the future for that one green survivor will be most precarious indeed. About the best some of the reclamation people can say in defense of their efforts to date is that things are being handled better than they were.
The handsome brochure, on the other hand, closes by stating, “Land is being restored to a desirable contour, water pollution is being minimized, successful planting of affected areas is being accomplished, and the strip-mining industry is enjoying a far better public image.” To find anyone in eastern Kentucky (other than a strip miner) who would agree with such claims would be extremely difficult. The kind of reclaimed mines pictured in the brochure are known by critics of the program as “Grim’s Garden Spots,” after Elmore Grim, director of the reclamation program; the severest critics, including Caudill, say that the objective of a better image for strip miners is really what the program is all about. When talking in private, Caudill takes a terribly fatalistic view of the future in store for Kentucky, or any portion of the American land beneath which coal can be found. Indeed, he takes a dark view of the drift of American life in general and what, if anything, can be done about it.
Others, however, point to him as a superb example of just how much one man can do, and for all his private moments of despair, he “sallies forth,” as he would say, all the same, a sort of Kentucky-style combination of John Muir, Mark Twain, and Don Quixote who does battle in his own particular way, on his own terms, and is hands down the most eloquent and effective voice for conservation in all Appalachia.