The Rape of the Appalachians

HARRY M. CAUDILL, a Kentucky legislator from the Cumberland Plateau, speaks out against the savage destruction of the mountain region by the strip miners. He tells how they are ruthlessly gouging away the mountainsides in their search for cheap coal and of the ambiguous role of the TVA in this devastation of America’s natural beauty.

DURING the last fifteen years, coal-mine operators have systematically destroyed a broad mountainous region lying within five states — Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Alabama. By a process which produces huge and immediate profits for a few industrialists, the southern Appalachians are literally being ripped to shreds, and eventually every taxpayer from Maine to Hawaii will have to pay the cost of flood control and soil reclamation in this strip-mining belt. Compounding the deepening tragedy is the fact that the TVA, which the Congress established for the benefit of one backward Southern region, has become a full-fledged partner in the devastation of another.

Experts in the Bureau of the Census have estimated that by the end of this century the population of the United States will have doubled. If this prediction is accurate — and in the past such estimates have erred on the conservative side — in only a little more than a generation hence, some 350 million people will earn their living, find shelter, and seek recreation on the same land area 185 million now enjoy. Such a prospect imposes on the present generation a positive duty to conserve timber, soil, and water resources and to bequeath them in a useful state to its progeny. The ravaging of the southern mountains now under way on a colossal scale will, in my opinion, cause the judgment of history to brand our generation as criminally irresponsible.

Though the situation has received little publicity, it has not gone wholly unnoticed by official Washington. On September 30, 1961, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall told a group at Louisville that the problem is as serious as the soil erosion crisis which led to federal legislation in the thirties. He said that the federal government might have to take control over strip mining.

The Cumberland Plateau region of eastern and southeastern Kentucky is typical of the entire coalfield. Developments in the separate states followed the same general pattern, differing only in time and degree. In all these states the physical terrain is roughly similar, and the people are drawn from the same ancient English, Scotch, and Irish stock which settled along the tobacco coasts long before the Revolution.

The settlers who poured into eastern Kentucky after the Revolution found a rugged but lovely wilderness. Hills ranged from altitudes of a few hundred feet near the mouth of the Big Sandy River to more than four thousand feet in the Big Black Mountain. The valleys were narrow and twisting, and the whole surface was covered with a dense growth of trees. Unknown to the newcomers, the hills were striated with rich veins of bituminous coal, and other veins lay beneath the hills and under the river bottoms.

Until a decade after the Civil War, the mountaineers survived in almost complete isolation. Virtually without schools, churches, or roads, they lived as hunters and farmers. They were unaware of the great industrial revolution occurring in the rest of the country and totally ignorant of its implications for their coal-filled hills. Though parties of geologists from Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh occasionally visited them and dug for coal samples, the mountaineers attached little significance to their hills. Thus, when coal buyers from the East came to the tiny county seats and announced their willingness to pay gold for coal lands, they found multitudes of eager sellers. The coal veins had never benefited the highlander or his family. Hence, he regarded them as worthless and thought himself lucky to find a buyer for them at any price.

The mountaineer was putty in the hands of the Eastern capitalists. Broad-form deeds conveyed not only the seams of coal “in, on and underlying” his land, but “all oil and gas, all stone and slate, all water and all mineral substances of every character, and all combinations of the same whatsoever.” The deeds also contained long covenanting clauses which granted to the coal companies and their “successors and assigns forever” the right to remove the minerals by any means “necessary or convenient.” The contracts ended with a catchall provision which absolved the mining companies of all damages that might be sustained by the landowners by reason of mining operations.

When railroads were built in the region immediately preceding World War I, and mining commenced, a torrent of litigation struck the courts. Mountaineers and coal companies sued to determine their respective rights, and with chilling uniformity the courts ruled in favor of the corporations. The deeds were fully sustained. By them, the courts said, the land had been dedicated to the coal industry, and neither the seller nor his descendants could complain when new technological developments made possible mining practices which were undreamed of when the deeds were signed.

In due time the courts sanctioned strip mining as having been authorized by the covenants. The mineral-owning corporations had acquired the coal underlying some 90 percent of the land in the plateau, and the court rulings in effect authorized the corporations to remove their coal by methods which totally destroy the usefulness of the surface without compensation for either the land or improvements placed on it by the mountaineer. And this though most of the minerals were sold for only fifty cents per acre and practically none for more than five dollars per acre. Thus, the region was placed at the mercy of men who, in our time, can profit vastly from ruining it.

By 1950, decades of underground mining had left hundreds of worked-out ridges in the southern highlands. Most of the coal had been removed from these mountains, but in each of them valuable filaments of the mineral remained on the outer edges of the seams. These barriers of outcrop coal were fifty to seventy-five feet wide and had been left intact in an effort to stabilize the mountains so that the coal deep inside could be recovered by conventional tunnel-and-pillar methods. However, in most instances the coal in the barriers could not have been withdrawn from the inside, because such outcrops nearly always have a roof of crumbly stone which cannot be supported. The engineers turned to opencut mining as a device for extracting the remnants of the coal veins.

So it was that strip mining, that bane of the flatland coalfields, came to the southern mountains. It had already desolated thousands of acres in western Kentucky and eastern Illinois, where the earth is as level as a tabletop. Its evil effects were to be immensely magnified on the precipitous slopes of the Appalachian Mountains.

STRIP MINING in mountainous regions was rarely feasible prior to a dozen years ago. The earthmoving machines were not powerful enough, nor had market conditions been favorable to such activities. But by 1950 the situation had changed. A technological revolution had spawned a vast array of diesel-powered steel monsters capable of efficiently reducing a timber-clad mountain to loose rubble. The thickest seams were nearing exhaustion, and recurring wage increases in the unionized pits had caused the restive operators to seek alternatives for their costly armies of underground workmen.

These factors made surface mining increasingly profitable. It began with a few modest operations designed primarily to test the technique in its new setting, and expanded rapidly. Today it produces a substantial part of the coal removed from the southern field.

A stripper’s machinery consists of a couple of bulldozers, a power shovel, an air compressor, and a pneumatic drill. Operation of these machines takes only a few men. To their wages are added those of a night watchman and two or three laborers, and the crew is complete.

With these men and machines, the operator first carves a road from the nearest highway up the hillside to the coal seam. The bulldozers follow the seam around the hillside, uprooting the timber and scraping off the soil until the vertical coal face is uncovered. Then the dirt is cleared from the sloping mountainside above to expose the overlying rock. Rows of holes are drilled in the rock and are tamped with explosives. Most of the dirt and rock is blasted violently down the hillside. The bulldozers then shove the remainder of the shattered overburden down the steep slopes. By this method a sheet of coal several feet thick, forty or fifty feet wide, and half a mile long can be exposed within a few days.

Next, holes are drilled in the coal, and small charges of dynamite loosen thousands of tons of the mineral, leaving it available for the shovel’s big dipper. A number of trucks are hired to haul it away to the processing tipple.

This method of recovery is vastly cheaper than shaft or drift mining. Six or eight men so employed can dig more coal from the outcrop than five or six times their number can mine underground. The bulldozers, shovels, and drills are expensive, but not more so than their subterranean counterparts. A strip-mining outfit can produce a ton of coal for little more than half the cost imposed on a competitor in the deep pits.

The devastation wrought by opencut mining in mountainous terrain must be seen to be believed. Masses of jumbled rubble are dislodged. The thin layer of fertile topsoil goes first, and then the trees that find sustenance in it. The sterile subsoil, stone, and slate follow. As the cut extends deeper into the hillside, the process is repeated again and again. Sometimes the high wall, the perpendicular bank above the cut, rises ninety feet, but a height of forty to sixty feet is more often found. In a single mile, hundreds of thousands of tons are cast. Many ridges contain three to five veins. Since each can be stripped, a sloping surface can be converted to a steplike one.

After the coal has been removed, huge quantities of the shattered mineral are left uncovered. Most seams contain sulfur, an impurity which, when wet, produces toxic sulfuric acid. This poison bleeds into the creeks, destroying vegetation, fish, frogs, and other stream dwellers.

Strip mining is done largely in dry weather. In spring, summer, and fall the machines tear tirelessly at the mountains. In the hot sunshine the churned earth turns powder dry and the spoil banks lie soft and fluffy. Like monstrous aprons, the spoil banks extend downward from the cutlines. Stones as large as army tanks are sent crashing through trees and undergrowth onto farmlands and into creeks. Even in summer the nearby creeks take on a sallow hue after the slightest shower. People along their banks apprehensively eye the rising high walls above the dead and blasted slopes. They remember other years, when flash floods pounded hillsides scratched by hoes and bull-tongue plows.

The rains of autumn flay the loose rubble, carrying thousands of tons of it onto the farmlands below. The runoff shaves inches from the surface in almost instantaneous sheet erosion. Simultaneously it carves deep gullies. The rain becomes more kindly, however, and eventually lessens its ravages by compacting the surface. Gradually the beating drops create a shell which affords considerable protection to the underlying soil. Then, in late November, the saturated spoil banks freeze. The ice pushes the dirt outward, leaving deep fissures extending far underground. With warmer weather the earth crumbles and skids downhill in tremendous landslides. The process is repeated until the displaced soil reaches the stream beds.

Within a few years after the strip operator has slashed his way into the hillside, the elements have carried away most of his discarded overburden. The dirt has vanished, leaving expanses of brown sandstone and slabs of gray slate. A few clusters of broom sage and an occasional sycamore take root and struggle to survive. A well-watered and once verdant land has been turned into a desolate waste.

Initially the strippers worked only in the outcrop of exhausted mines. The coal auger made its appearance as a method of removing that portion of the coal which could not be reached by stripping. The auger is a gigantic drill which bores back into the coal seam, spewing out huge quantities of the mineral with each turn of the screw. The augers range from seventeen inches to six feet in diameter, and the point of the drill may eventually extend some seventy yards into a hill.

Photograph by Billy Davis courtesy of Louisville courier-journal.

After the already disemboweled hills were stripped and augered, the big bits moved into virgin ridges and began to rend seams which had never felt a pick. Under such circumstances, the bulldozers gouge out only enough of the overburden to expose the coal. Then the boreholes follow one another in a procession along one side of the meandering ridge. When the end of the ridge is reached, the boring continues on the other side of the mountain, the holes extending toward those drilled from the first side. A six-foot auger turning uninterruptedly can load fifteen tons of coal in a single minute. If the fleet of trucks can keep pace with the bulldozers and augers, the profits are fabulous.

Strip and auger mining have one real advantage over conventional methods. They eliminate the need for men to go into a hill. The perils of slatefall and fire do not pursue the surface workman; but nothing else can be said in defense of the process.

Augering in virgin ridges is fantastically wasteful of coal. Rarely do the bits extend into the mountain more than a quarter of its width. If the boring proceeds from both sides, a solid block is left in the center of the ridge which contains at least 50 percent of the original tonnage. When allowance is made for the space left between the auger holes and over and under them, another 25 percent of the seam’s content is unretrieved. Competent mining engineers have testified that such a project is highly successful if 20 percent of the total coal is removed. Unfortunately, when the ridge has been augered on both sides it is no longer possible to mine the remaining coal by conventional methods. The boreholes are so close together that they leave no pillars of sufficient thickness to support the roof. Within a few years after air is admitted into the seam, the remaining coal begins to crumble, and the weight of the overlying rock and soil crushes the thin walls between the holes. The coal in the interior is thus sealed against the outside world.

Even if the problem of access is solved by leaving occasional entry places, there are other difficulties. Tunnel-and-pillar mining requires ventilation as well as roof support, and if a reliable air supply is to be maintained at the working places, an outer wall of coal some twenty-five to forty feet wide must be preserved around the entire mining area. If this is pierced or is allowed to crack, the precious oxygen will escape. Thus, if an entry is made, it must operate within the confines of the outer pillar, following the furthermost penetrations of the auger bits. When this indispensable safeguard is deducted, too little coal is left to justify the expense of mining it. The nation now has tremendous reserves of coal; but in an age of rising population and increasing dependence on the products that chemistry can wring from fossil fuels, it is not prudent to permit the continued waste of so vital a resource.

OPENCUT strip mining does not always follow the meandering borders of the ridge. A different procedure is used when the vein lies near the top of the hill. There the strippers blast and carve away the stone and soil overlying the coal, shoving it over the brink until the entire seam lies glistening in the sunlight. Such an operation can transform a razorback ridge into a flat mesa. After the strippers have departed and the rains and freezes have flayed the decapitated mountain for a season or two, it takes on an appearance not unlike that of the desolate tablelands of Colorado. But these man-made mesas lie in a rainy area, and the loose soil cloaking their slopes will not stay put. It melts away, only to reappear at countless places downstream.

I was a member of the Kentucky legislature in 1954, when Governor Lawrence Wetherby proposed a mild control bill for the coal industry. Lobbyists for the mining companies descended on the state capitol by the score. Spokesmen for one company pointed out that it owned 5000 ridgeline miles which it proposed to strip and auger during the coming decade or two. An official of another corporation declared his company planned to work 1200 such ridgeline miles. A diluted version of an initially weak bill was passed, but successive governors have failed to enforce its mild provisions. For all practical purposes, the operators in the five states are permitted to conduct their affairs as they see fit. Little effort is made to reclaim the land, and, indeed, reclamation is virtually impossible once the surface has been so violently disturbed.

Such reclamation statutes as have been enacted require strippers to replant the acres they have ravaged. Conservationists generally recommend shortleaf or loblolly pines for the spoil banks and insist that a full year pass before planting. This delay allows the piled soil to settle enough so that the seedlings can take root. Ten years must elapse before trees growing in such impoverished earth reach the height of a man. In the meantime, the rains have carved the earth around their roots into deep gullies, and there is little left for their foliage to protect.

Upper Beefhide in Letcher County, Kentucky, is a terrible example of the disaster that can befall a community as a result of strip mining. The mining company offered not even an apology for the excesses it had committed, but insisted that its mineral deeds empowered it to render the whole region uninhabitable if it so desired. Before the valley was wrecked it comprised a voting precinct, and several hundred men, women, and children lived reasonably well within it. Eight years after the stripping ceased, three quarters of the population had moved away. Today a dozen old-age pensioners and a handful of children and their dispirited parents remain.

The industry‘s impact on the relatively poor Southern states is incalculable. While mountain land is assessed for tax purposes at a low level, strip mining often eliminates it altogether from the tax rolls. The owners regard it as worthless and decline to pay taxes levied on it. As a result, the region is deprived of desperately needed revenue for schools and other public facilities. Mud from the spoil banks congests creeks and ditch lines. Communities must bear the cost of dredging them, and necessary road construction and repairs must wait.

A few months before this article was written, I discussed a huge stripping operation with the engineer who was directing it. He was a veteran of nearly forty-five years’ experience, and he summed up his lifetime of work in these words: “When I came to this coalfield, most of the hills were covered with fine timber, and all of them were full of top-grade coal. Since then we have gutted these old mountains and shaved ’em off clean. Now we are skinning ’em and cutting their heads off!”

SINCE 1932, American taxpayers have lavished money on reforestation, soil banks, and other conservation schemes. The gray emanations from the dust bowls have been combated at untold expense. Billions have been spent to dredge the sand and mud which clog our streams. But what state and federal foresters have labored to accomplish, other government agencies have toiled with equal determination to undo.

Until about 1953, the Tennessee Valley Authority was a benevolent agency whose administrators gave every evidence of a wise dedication to public service. Conceived as an immense experiment in the rehabilitation of people and resources, the TVA accomplished genuine miracles. With its huge dams it disciplined rivers and creeks, restraining their waters and permitting them to run off harmlessly. The same magnificent dams poured out cheap electricity which lighted homes and ran factories all through the valley of the Tennessee. Never before had an agency of government brought so many advantages to a population, while at the same time broadening rather than limiting its liberties.

But in the last decade a change has come over the TVA. By degrees it changed direction, converting itself into a mammoth corporation which subordinated all other considerations to low costs and balanced budgets. The authority had brought into its domain more electric appliances and factories than its falling water could propel. So, quite logically, Congress authorized it to build steam generators to produce electricity at a rate which would keep pace with the region‘s factories and mills. It was calculated that the steam plants would burn millions of tons of coal annually, and the coal industry was delighted by the prospect of such a fabulous new customer.

In the electric-power industry, too, events have moved rapidly. It is no longer necessary to feed the fires with fuel that is free of slate and dirt. In the immense modern forced-draft furnaces, relatively cheap and low-grade coal can be burned efficiently, and purchasing agents began buying by thermal units rather than by tons. This dovetailed precisely with the capacities of the strip and auger corporations, whose product inevitably contained sizable quantities of inert waste. The voracious furnaces of the TVA could devour their coal easily. Because of its tremendous fuel requirements, this great public corporation became the godparent of the burgeoning strip-mining industry.

On April 12, 1961, the TVA announced that it had accepted bids to supply 16.5 million tons of Kentucky and Tennessee coal to its plants. One operator contracted to provide the fuel at only a few cents above two dollars per ton. On the whole, the bids remained under three dollars per ton. Even at these fantastically low prices, the operators could expect to clear between seventy-five cents and a dollar on the ton. It is doubtful whether the most thoroughly automated underground mine could produce the fuel at a cost of less than three dollars per ton.

The TVA, mighty benefactor of the Tennessee Valley, is subsidizing the destruction of the southern mountains. Its furnaces have inspired private companies to build similar but smaller plants. Detroit, Chicago, New York, and many smaller cities have seen such installations arise on their borders, each of the colossal chimneys carrying into the atmosphere smoke from hundreds of tons of fuel daily. Meantime, strip and auger mining have grown to a rank of genuine importance, since only this branch of the industry can produce fuel cheaply enough to satisfy TVA and the private power corporations, and at the same time earn a profit.

TVA has boasted of its cheap and stable charge schedule. Other producers of electric power have struggled to remain reasonably close to its price level. Their consumers have been convinced by reams of slick advertising that in cheap electricity they receive the best bargain afforded by the American industrial machine. The truth is that cheap power is being bought at a tremendous hidden and deferred cost which another generation will pay with compound interest.

TVA’s involvement in the electric-power industry is gigantic. Its steam plants are located at Colbert and Widows Creek, in Alabama, at Shawnee, Kentucky, and at Gallatin, John Sevier, Johnsonville, Kingston, and Watts Bar, in Tennessee. Under construction is the Bull Run plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where four and a quarter railroad gondolas of coal will be consumed each hour. When completed, the even bigger plant at Paradise, Kentucky, will gulp millions of tons annually. This gargantuan industrial complex recently put into effect a rate schedule under which its ordinary homeowner customer will pay only $4.50 per month for electricity. But the agency is rapidly consuming the coal foundations on which it stands. In order to raise a hedge around its empire, it has commenced buying broad tracts of coal.

In June, 1961, TVA’s general manager announced the purchase of mining rights of 59,000 acres of land in eastern Kentucky and the obtaining of an option on 53,000 additional acres in northeastern Tennessee. These acquisitions add to the region’s other woes the specter of enormous strip mines owned and operated by the federal government. Inspired by the success of TVA, other large consumers have resorted to the same methods. Already both Bethlehem Steel and United Stales Steel are stoking their furnaces with coal ripped from the southern hills.

A flight over the coal counties reveals long yellow lines and vast sallow patches of sterile earth. Unless men find some way of repealing nature’s laws, calamity cannot be long in coming. Appalachia is wet country, receiving an annual precipitation of more than forty-five inches. This water and gravity spell disaster for the towns and cities past which the rivers flow.

Ironically, the crumbling mountains threaten the splendid lakes for the construction of which the TVA was created. Initially, engineers estimated these impoundments would enjoy a life-span of centuries, and in some cases, of millennia. But they assumed that the watersheds would be stabilized with vegetation. As stripping chews up the land from which the authority’s water is derived, it reduces by decades the usefulness of the lakes.

If the nation’s rivers are to be subdued and its string of costly lakes preserved, the mountain slopes must be sheltered with foliage. Cheap power purchased by the ruin of vast land areas and the silting up of our precious complex of freshwater reservoirs will prove a costly bargain indeed. The wrecking of the southern coalfield is a national problem, and unless a national solution is found for it soon, the harm will be irreparable.