Damning the Coal Company
Trading coal today for corn forever
January 18, 1980
The topic here is the strip-mining of prime farmland, but the larger topic is the exploitative attitude toward land resources of all kinds. This piece expresses my personal views, not my judgments as a journalist, and I still think extractive industries like coal mining wreak more than they sow. The fevered metaphors of the opening paragraph embarrass me now, but overall my analysis was much more measured than my previous diatribes on this topic.
When giant coal stripping shovels bite into the black earth in mid-Illinois, the pain of the assault reaches deep into people and touches them in places beyond the reach of argument. Strip mining, especially of prime farmlands, has been likened to rape, and it is like rape if only in the violence of the passions it arouses. Strip mining has radicalized farmers, and turned housewives who otherwise would never quarrel over a ten-cent overcharge at the grocery store into Joans of Arc.
There are an estimated twelve million acres of prime farmland sitting atop strippable coal reserves in the U.S., scattered among thirteen states. Of that amount, six million are found in Illinois. Nowhere is the dilemma posed by the choice between food and energy more acute.
Or more emotional. Among the foes of strip mining are some for whom the deed is judged by the doer. Is not strip mining done by coal companies? they ask. Was it not coal companies who were responsible for the devastations of "prelaw" days? Are not the coal companies the puppets of Big Oil?
Well, yes. But that is not an analysis, it is a prejudice. Coal companies exercise a more caring hand with the land nowadays, partly because it makes life easier for their public relations vice-presidents, partly because it now is legally required that they do so. The fact that coal companies have had to be compelled to do good is held against them by many of their opponents. But compared to the wreckage to the land wrought by Illinois farmers—the loss of animal habitat, the fouling of streams and lakes, the leveling of forests, the draining of lakes and wetlands, all done, mind, for the sake of profit—the depredations of the coal companies shrivel in significance. The electric pit shovel should not stand alone as the demon symbol of the wasting of the Illinois countryside, but should be joined by the mold-board plow.
What of the loss of food-growing capacity that strip mining of farmland portends? Even the most assiduous reclamation techniques have not yet been proven to restore Illinois's best soils to their once-prodigious productivity, and the world is a hungry place. But all the Illinois land mined since the 19th century (by no means all of which was prime soils) amounts to less than one half of one percent of the state's land area. In 1977, the state issued permits to strip mine about 5,000 acres of farmland (only 44 percent of which was cropland), while in recent years some 100,000 acres of Illinois farmland have been shopping centered, airported, expresswayed, reservoired, subdivisioned, or otherwise improved out of existence every year. Compared to an interstate highway, a strip mine is a temporary use of the land. It is true that the effect of that use on farm productivity is not altogether happy; Midland Coal Co., for instance, so far has gotten corn yields of only seventy bushels per acre on reclaimed land that used to grow 140 bushels. Research data is lacking, but it seems safe to say that the yield per acre of interstate, however, would be markedly less even than that.
Farmers are the natural protagonists in this struggle, and they exert a formidable moral muscle as the guardians of the soil, the spiritual descendants of those gritty Adams and Eves who settled this 19th-century Garden of Eden. But though their cause may be just, their indignation, alas, often is not. As it was put by Raymond Cragle, who runs the Illinois Agricultural Experiment Station, "In some areas farmers are practically mining the soil." According to Deborah Goeken of the Peoria Journal-Star, during a public meeting held last fall in Knox County to discuss a proposed strip mine expansion, one of the participants said, "Farmers aren't wearing any haloes. I've lived here for fifty years and watched the land go to gravel. I can show you silt two and three feet deep in your waterways," caused by erosion caused in turn by careless cultivation. "You'd better take care of your land first," he concluded, "stop damning the coal company."
Well, to quote from an old Buffalo Springfield tune, "Nobody's right/When everybody's wrong." The discussion is further complicated by the fact that, although it is carried on in the vocabulary of crop production, energy demand, and environmentalism, much of it is really about other issues altogether—still related to strip mining, mind you, but on a different level, deep in the psychic recesses. The big shovels are the despoilers of the Earth, the mother provider, an ancient specter that also arouses specifically 20th-century fears, since strip mining is the contest between Machine and Nature made devastatingly plain.
Then, too, there is the unhuman, alienating scale of modern strip mining. It now is feasible for coal diggers to take coal that lies as much as 150 feet deep. I talked with a Knox County farmer recently who described one of the giant shovels that is working within sight of his farm. The shovel runs around the clock, and the lights from it are so bright that they cast harsh shadows on the wall as he climbs his stairs every night on the way to bed. You could fit a school bus in its bucket, he explained, but there was no admiration in his voice for what would in another context be an admirable technological feat. There was only something like dread.
All these confusions act (as the New Yorker noted recently in another context) as a "sort of aggression against the peace of mind of anyone who was trying in good faith to find his bearings in the . . . situation." The case against strip mining prime farmland stands, I think, but it needs to be broadened. The fact that strip mines ruin less land than subdividers and highway builders is reason to detest subdividers and highway builders, not to celebrate strip miners; spoil banks and shopping centers are both blots on the landscape. And proving that many farmers are as cavalier with the land as the worst coal company proves only that environmentalism needs to lengthen its enemies list.
Ultimately, the sin lies not with coal companies but with anyone who still views the land as a resource to be exploited. Because ultimately the fate of the land is the fate of the people. Strip mining strips topsoil, sure, but it also strips away houses, barns, and roads, which in turn strips away people, thus slowly starving schools, churches, and businesses to death. Coal companies like to talk about the number of jobs that might be lost if mining were banned from farm country but they say little about the jobs that might be lost if it is not. Millions are being spent to learn how to reclaim strip-mined soils. Who is learning how to reclaim strip-mined towns ?
Federal law now requires that a coal company be able to restore prime farmland to 100 percent of its pre-mining productivity. The coal industry has complained that the 100 percent reclamation requirement is unreasonable and amounts to a ban on the strip mining of prime farmlands. Their complaint is only half justified. It does constitute at least a temporary ban on such mining, but is that unreasonable? There are other places to dig coal, after all—in Illinois alone we have more than we know what to do with—and in time we ought to find other, cleaner fuels to do what coal does now. But there seems no likely alternative to the soil as a medium for the growing of food, and until there is, a reasonable people will leave what they have alone. ●
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