Commentary: Add poor land stewardship to list of Bush sins

The Kansas City StarDecember 8, 2008 

One thought occurred immediately when I read about the recent White House approval of a rule to give coal companies greater freedom to shove the tons of rubble from shattered mountaintops into the streams and valleys below.

It was this: President Bush and his administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency ought to be obliged to go to eastern Kentucky and spend time — a good amount of time — in the hamlet called Lookout in a sad little ravine known as Poor Bottom Hollow.

Maybe they would better understand, then, what unspeakable ruin they have just signed off on.

It’s possible — just possible — they might even care.

I write from firsthand experience, because many years ago — in January of 1972 to be exact — I did spend a month in Lookout, living with a disabled coal miner and his wife.

Big corporate underground mines once had been the principal industry of the region. In the 1930s, more than 1,000 men a day went under the mountain at the mine near Lookout.

But in the 1950s, for economic reasons, major workings like that one shut down, the corporations pulled out and the economy of the region effectively collapsed.

Left was an army of the unemployed — many with health broken from breathing mine dust — living on disability checks and welfare, making homes with their kin in the small cottages of what formerly had been company coal camps.

Successors to the big mines were what the locals spoke of as "dog holes" — smaller, worked by only a few men, often of the same family.

I spent time underground in one of those, the little Bartley mine, up the nearby hollow of Lick Branch. I watched them "shooting it from the solid," as miners say — blowing coal from the face of the seam with charges of dynamite, then hauling it to the surface to be trucked and sold.

On a good day, the Bartleys and their co-workers — nine men in all — could load out 200 tons.

By comparison, on that same day a strip mine employing just four men and ripping the top off a mountain with bulldozers and power shovels could send 2,000 tons to the railhead.

Little wonder where the jobs had gone.

One bitter winter afternoon, I rode in his pickup truck with the youngest Bartley, Estil, up a steep and icy track to a promontory that commanded a grand view of that Appalachian landscape.

"Lookit there," he said, braking his truck on the lip of a dizzying ravine and pointing. "They’re tearing that mountain all to pieces!"

It was not a mountain any longer. It was a mesa, with its top and upper third removed. The machinery that had done the work could not be seen at such a distance. Only the results.

And down the side had come the mud — a flow of sterile muck so large that the gullies eroded in it carried foul streams of a size almost to deserve naming — down 1,000 feet or more to the bed of what young Bartley said had been Sycamore Creek. By then, it had vanished under the slide, emerging from the lower side as a snaking, ocher ribbon.

And having by then been transformed from water into some other, nastier substance, it oozed on to mingle eventually with the ruins of other mountainsides in torpid suspension.

Bartley whistled softly to himself, then released the brake, turned and let his truck roll on back down.

That is the sort of violence that already was being done three decades ago to that sector of our eastern mountains, a region of this country whose most singular resource even then was its beauty.

And it is what the Bush administration, in the twilight of its misrule, has decided to promote by further gutting the weak rules that have inadequately governed the disposal of surface-mining waste.

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