In 1972, I proposed — and was commissioned to write — a 3,000-word magazine piece about the human and environmental harm done by the mining industry in Appalachian coal country.
So on a raw January day I traveled to Pike County in eastern Kentucky, where a succession of dismal hamlets — Hellier, Lookout, Henry Clay, Allegheny and Greenough — were strung along the valley of a fouled stream called Marrowbone Creek.
I spent a month there, living with a retired miner named Kermit Ratliff and his wife, Vadney, in the one-time mining camp cabin they’d remade into a small but cozy cottage.
On the steep mountainside near Lookout was the abandoned portal of the Henry Clay mine in which Kermit had spent his working life until he was disabled by a roof fall.
More than 30 years earlier, 1,000 men a day had gone into the mountain there. Now nothing remained but rotted timbers and a flow of rubble spilling down the slope into aptly named Poor Bottom Hollow.
And a bit to the side, visible now that winter had stripped the trees of leaves, were the headstones of some of those whose lives the mine had claimed.
The early morning sound in that country was not of roosters crowing but of old men coughing — men sick from a lifetime breathing coal dust.
Though many of the big mines had closed, there still were smaller pits, sometimes called “dog holes,” commonly worked by members of a single family, often brothers and cousins.
I spent time in a mine with some of them and was astonished to find them devoted to the work. There’s camaraderie, and they find satisfaction in being able at the end of the day to measure the product of their labor in tons.
Young miners know very well that there’s danger underground, and eventual lung disease is all too likely. But that’s in the future. And what else are they to do, in a depressed region where even in good times the options are so few?
Though the human cost is of paramount concern, what I saw of environmental ruin was stunning.
Because of speed and economy, much of the activity in the area had shifted to a particularly hideous form of surface mining — blasting and bulldozing the tops off mountains to get at the buried coal seams, then shoving the waste over the side to foul valleys and waterways below.
As I’ve said, my commission was for 3,000 words. That wouldn’t have begun to tell all that was needed. The manuscript, written in anger and with a sense of mission, ended up just under 20,000 words — or almost half a book.
The magazine’s editors were appalled. They couldn’t publish it. But a different and finer magazine did, and at considerable expense saw that a copy was gotten into the hands of every member of the U.S. House and Senate at the time.
The hope was to stir action to address some of the issues pointed out in the article. But the coal industry, then as now, was a formidable lobby.
As is typical for Washington, it would be five more years before Congress would enact the 1977 Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, and longer than that before serious attention would be given to curbing the disfigurement of a region whose natural beauty was one of its few enduring assets.
Hence my great satisfaction at reading of the government’s move to shut down a Kentucky deep mine that, according to the Department of Labor, had shown no improvement despite being cited for 700 safety violations this year, and where present conditions posed high risk.
A methane explosion in a mine owned by the same company claimed 29 lives last spring.
And last month, the Environmental Protection Agency initiated a process aimed at vetoing the 2007 approval of a massive mountaintop mining project in West Virginia that would wreak irreparable damage on streams and wildlife of the area.
It has been 38 years since I saw and wrote about the exact same abominations these actions seek to correct.
Better late than never, I suppose, though the true cost of “later” in lives lost and landscapes savaged can only be imagined.
Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/2010/11/20/2456365/moves-against-mines-too-long-in.html#ixzz162ZrJDfW