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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
For one thing, with strip mining it is possible to work with much bigger equipment than with ordinary underground mining. Put in its simplest terms, this means that fewer men can mine more coal faster. A strip miner can produce about thirty tons a day, or more than twice the output of the miner underground; and in an auger mine, where huge boring machines with steel bits sometimes seven feet in diameter are used, production is greater still.
Strip mining is also considerably safer. Men do get killed in strip mines—from falling rock or overturned equipment—but the risks involved on the job are nowhere near as serious as in a conventional mine. There are no slate falls to contend with; no deadly gas; no silicosis or “black lung” caused by inhaling coal dust. Nor is there any of the psychological fear of going underground.
But perhaps the most important appeal of the whole business of strip mining is that it is so simple. One need not even be a miner to run a strip mine (a fact the “true” coal miners are quick to emphasize). An ability to handle heavy earthmoving equipment is about the only expertise required. With the proper machinery—bulldozers, chiefly—the operator simply scrapes off the topsoil, then the subsoil (which generally includes a lot of rock and requires blasting) until he strikes the coal seam. He then scoops up the coal and dumps it into trucks, which take it to a coal tipple. There the coal is transferred to railroad cars, which in turn haul it out of the mountains.
And added to all that, the strip miners still have the law on their side. In June of 19683 broad-form deed was contested before the Kentucky Court of Appeals, and the court upheld the deed. The case involved LeRoy Martin and his wife, who owned a ten-acre parcel of land in Knott County, the mineral rights for which were held by the Kentucky River Coal Corporation under a broad-form deed. It was a historic test case. No other state in the union still honored broad-form deeds for strip mining. The decision was a tremendous blow for the small landowners, for conservationists, and for Harry Caudill, who was the Martins’ counsel.
Caudill, however, hopes to contest the broad-form deed again. He would like to take it to a federal court; all that is needed, he says, is a client who is willing, and financially able, to stick with the case all the way to the Supreme Court, if necessary. In the meantime, court fights of other kinds continue.
There is, for example, the illustrative case of Vernon Barnett. Seven years ago Barnett bought a house on an acre of ground on Yellow Creek in Knott County. He had spent thirty-six years in the mines, lived always in a company house, knew nothing but mining, and was now disabled by black lung. But for once he had a place of his own. In the time since, however, the mountainside behind his house has been strip-mined, and now a huge spoil bank hangs over his head like a volcano. At one point two men from the mine came down to advise him, “unofficially” they said, not to sleep in any room facing the mountainside. There was no telling what might let go and come crashing through his windows.
After one rainstorm the water surged through the creek beside his house with such fury that it moved a giant boulder some sixty feet. Then his own water supply began to give out. Now only a trickle comes out of his kitchen faucet. “Not enough even to do dishes,” his wife says. When Barnett went to see the operator, he was told that the coal company would “make good” on any damages caused. But as Barnett says, “When you are trying to go to sleep at night and you know that spoil bank is hanging up there, you don’t think much about who will be paying for ‘damages.’ You think about getting buried alive.” Friends have urged him to move out. Barnett has decided to take his case to court and has asked Caudill to represent him. He says he “can trust Harry,” as do numerous others who have tried to fight the strip miners.
As one might suspect, however, Caudill is not universally popular in eastern Kentucky. The state reclamation people give him ample credit for getting the law on the books in the first place. “He served his purpose,” says Elmore Grim, the tall, businesslike director of the program. But Grim and those who work for him suggest that Caudill gets the operators so furious that it sometimes seems they make trouble just out of spite.
Grim’s firm conviction is that the best way to make progress is to work with the operators, to get them to “see the light,” as he puts it. His inspectors are now looking over every strip mine in Kentucky at least once every two weeks, he claims. He has closed down several for failure to conform to the law, but, as he admits, he has still to enforce it to the hilt. “Why, we’ve got enough law on the books now to shut down every strip in this state,” Grim says. “That is, if we were to nitpick. But we can’t do that. We’ve got to find out how these things can best be handled, reasonably and intelligently. Hell, I could be a dictator. But the federal government doesn’t even know what to do. Take acid mine drainage. Nobody knows what to do. Stop it up on one side of a mountain and it will start coming out the other side, where the streams are good. Plug it? The plug will blow, and what a mess that is. There’s probably an answer to it. I don’t know the answer. This isn’t like geology or agronomy, where you can go and look up the answer in a library. We’re writing the book as we go along.”