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Law to Halt Strip-Mining Abuses Is Widely Ignored : Abandoned Claims Deface Appalachia Mountain Slopes

September 01, 1985|DAVID TREADWELL | Times Staff Writer

HAZEL PATCH, Ky. — It was seven years ago that a self-styled developer named Peyton Smith began blasting away the side of a mountain overlooking the nearby Rockcastle River for what he proudly boasted would be "a fancy condo development for rich New Yorkers."

Today, all that remains of that project--which Smith had dubbed "Sportsman's Paradise"--is a violent gash in the earth, scarred with the tracks of strip-miners' bulldozers and spilling piles of ugly rubble down the slope.

There are no condos, nor were there ever meant to be. For all his boasting, Smith's grandiose plan was nothing more than a scheme to strip-mine the lucrative layer of coal beneath the surface of the mountain without being burdened with the usual environmental precautions.

Such flagrant practices, once commonplace in the Appalachia coal country, were supposed to come to an end under a landmark federal strip-mining bill signed into law in 1977, the year before Smith started blasting.

That legislation, which won approval only after a decade of bitter congressional struggle, set stiff rules for strip-mining operations. It requires, among other things, that the land be restored to approximately its original contour and that adequate precautions be taken in mining to prevent problems such as sediment runoff and acid drainage.

Pattern of Abuse

A look at the strip-mining heartland of eastern Kentucky illustrates, however, that the law has fallen far short of its promise. A pervasive pattern of abuse has emerged over the last eight years, overshadowing the abundant examples of good reclamation and casting serious doubt on the effectiveness of federal and state enforcement efforts.

Much like the moonshiners, who work in these same hills, hordes of "wildcatters" operate outside the law. They leave behind untold numbers of abandoned mines with their large, exposed cliffs or "highwalls," black pit floors and piles of debris that give the land the appearance of a moonscape. Hundreds of legitimate operators have successfully ignored federal orders to repair damage to land and water.

Schemes to circumvent reclamation standards have proliferated. State inspectors often wink at violations, and millions of dollars in overdue fines and reclamation fees remain unpaid.

Advocates of rigorous strip-mining regulation say the picture is so unsettling that they often feel as if they were back at square one.

"We are definitely backsliding," said Thomas J. FitzGerald, an environmental attorney with the Frankfort-based Kentucky Resources Council who has been in the forefront of the fight against strip-mining abuse.

L. Thomas Galloway, a Washington attorney who has headed many successful legal challenges to attempts to sap the law, likened the abuses to the "massive resistance" of white Southerners to school desegregation orders and civil rights legislation during the 1950s and 1960s.

Disturbing Proportions

Publicly, coal industry spokesmen tend to play down the problem, and brand most abuses as unscrupulous acts of a venal minority. But privately, many concede that the violations have grown to disturbing proportions and that action must be taken to combat them.

"We want to get the outlaws out of the business, too," said one industry lobbyist. "We have no sympathy for wildcatters. We have no sympathy for people who don't pay their back fines and fees. They give the industry a bad name."

The two sides differ radically, however, over the causes of the excesses.

Environmentalists charge that lax enforcement, gross mismanagement and "malign neglect" on the part of state and federal regulators have played a major role. Industry spokesmen say the chief fault is the law itself. The rules are so overly demanding and rigidly drawn that they invite abuse, they contend.

"It's as if the federal government were trying to create a whole new class of criminals," said Daniel R. Gerkin, president of the Mining and Reclamation Council, a Washington-based lobby representing strip-mine operators.

Wherever the truth lies on that issue, the toll on the environment is painfully evident.

6,000 Mines Unreclaimed

In the last eight years, 6,000 mines ranging in size from two acres to 40 acres, many of them in eastern Kentucky, have been left unreclaimed, according to federal officials and environmentalists.

"The damage they can do is all out of proportion to their size," Galloway said. "One five-acre mine can easily devastate a 100-acre area through erosion, landslides and toxic discharge."

The quality of human life has also suffered. In the rural Laurel County community of White Oak, for example, the well water of at least two families, and perhaps as many as 14, has been polluted beyond use as a result of the improper disposal of toxic materials at a nearby strip-mining operation, a preliminary federal investigation recently concluded.

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