National Geographic : 1975 Aug
the face of this planet. When old mine work ings collapse, the land cracks and sags-"sub sidence," it is called. Banks of culm (waste material from a mine, intermixed with coal lumps once considered too small to sell) some times catch fire by spontaneous combustion. One burning culm bank smolders on a hill overlooking Shamokin, Pennsylvania-and there are 29 other burning anthracite banks and mines in the state. Attempts to extinguish such fires have often failed; some have been burning for decades. A seam in an Australian mountain has been smoldering for at least a thousand years. Burning or not, culm banks and abandoned strip-mine wastepiles offend the eye. At Scran ton, Pennsylvania, I was heartened by an old stripped area that had been turned into an attractive park. But face-lifting the 125-acre area had cost a million dollars. Coal Quest Leaves Ugly Souvenirs In bituminous-mining regions, the soft-coal waste, or spoil, becomes "gob," but gains no beauty with another name. And strip mining is even more prevalent there. Nowhere have I seen a more discouraging sight than the moonscape I looked down on from a light plane flying over eastern Ten nessee. The steep-sided hills had been layered with coal seams. Strip miners had girdled the hills with roads, then cut inward after the coal (page 252). They simply bulldozed the waste into banks on the hillsides-where rain or snow would soon wash it down, killing vegetation and clogging streams with silt. When the mining machines rumbled away, the ruined mountain was left barren and ugly. During my fieldwork for this article, the United States Congress passed (and President Ford twice vetoed) a bill to control coal surface-mining and to reclaim abandoned "orphan banks" such as the ones below me. Even so, such steep-sided hills pose a special problem; erosion tends to wash seeds away before they are firmly rooted. There is a lot yet to do. Unreclaimed coal stripped land in the U. S. occupies an area larger than Rhode Island, and each day more than 400,000 pounds of sulfuric acid leaches into our streams from strip mines. Coal companies are very conscious of their corporate images. "Don't curse us for the sins of old-timers," they say, "look at what we're doing today." I did look, in western Kentucky. There the Peabody Coal Company, the largest in the nation, operates 14 of its 47 mines. With affable Jim Whitney, director of the company's public-relations staff, I roamed stripped areas that had been reclaimed. They were well vegetated-but Jim would hardly have steered me to anything less than the most successful reclamation efforts. One area had been turned into an idyllic miniature forest. A quarter of a century ago, before there were any mandatory reclama tion laws, three coal-mine operators formed the Kentucky Reclamation Association; this was one of its projects, and it showed what good management, time, and nature can do. On a spoil bank being reclaimed I met an agronomist, Dr. Richard Barnhisel of the University of Kentucky, busy inspecting his tiny "farms." Each measured 16 by 33 feet; each had received different treatment. They had been fertilized in varying amounts, and had been seeded with different crops. "All the plants are local-fescue, alfalfa clovers, et cetera," Dr. Barnhisel explained. "If you can't get anything to grow except an exotic species, you're doing something wrong. "Even just roughening the ground with a disk helps," he added. "There's a water runoff problem, and tiny furrows hold the rain until the ground can absorb it." In the U. S. many reclamation efforts have failed simply because the reclaimers had only a vague idea of what the land needed. Pea body's struck me as a reasonable effort. But I ended the tour with a nagging suspicion. The reclaimed areas beyond view of the road what did they look like? A plane ride gave me the answer. The view was perhaps a shade less scenic, but certainly no moonscape. Paradise Lost-But Not to Coal Company During my Kentucky stay, a television cam era crew turned up to see Jim Whitney, and their request nearly shattered his composure. "We want to film the place where Paradise was, before 'Mr. Peabody's coal train hauled it away.' " Jim rolled his eyes skyward, and stifled a sigh. All the restoration work that Peabody had done, and now that folk song again! The song-"Paradise," by John Prine-accuses the company of using "the world's largest shovel" to ravage Muhlenberg County, where the town of Paradise lay, and hauling it away. Paradise, in fact, was ultimately bought and razed by the Tennessee Valley Authority to Coal: Tomorrow's "Black Gold"?