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"I met a guy from MESA who told me he didn't care if the companies made money at all, as long as the miners were safe. Well, if the companies don't make money, they can't pay the miners; and if the miners don't work, that dumb bunny will find himself out of a job. And the U.S. doesn't have any coal. Those professional do-gooders have to learn that this is a two-way street."
Guckert wheels into the parking lot of a motel near Clearfield, Pa. to meet one of his inspectors, Ed Lancaster, who at 6'4", 250 pounds is not a likely candidate to catch one in the chops at a miners' tavern on Saturday night. Transferring to Lancaster's Jeep Wagoneer, they jounce off for a spot check of a nearby mine. There, the idea and the reality of strip-mining blend in a confusing tangle of hillocks, ponds, machinery and coal. The idea is simple enough. Huge earthmovers called pans remove the topsoil and take it to a separate area for later replacement. Next, a monster dragline (a steam shovel fitted so that the bucket is dropped on the subsoil and then dragged by cables back toward the rig) removes the "overburden," or the soil scraped off to get at the coal face, until the coal seam is reached. Then, plying directly on the surface of the coal, front-end loaders scoop it up and dump it into large trucks called buckets, which take the raw product to processing stations called tipples, where it is limed, deironized, graded, cleaned and loaded onto trains for shipment.
Patches of fog lie in the opened mine; huge piles of overburden tower 150 feet in the air and the ground is littered with flinty shale, the rock common to coalfields. Guckert and Lancaster pick their way expertly through this shrouded, clanking maze, seeming to know in which direction things are moving and what the mine operator is doing.
To a visitor the scene is one of unfathomable horror, Hieronymus Bosch brought to life, and it makes one wonder if our need for power is indeed dire enough to warrant this vivisection of the earth. It took the earth millions of years to compress its load of plants and trees into this carbonized blackness. At the present rate of consumption, all the mine-able coal in the U.S. will be gone in 340 years. Progress. Leave it there for another billion years and the coal might turn to diamonds under further pressure, and glint back at the Milky Way in a frozen eternity.
Snuff-chewing Ed Lancaster spits into the yellow "Have A Nice Day" cup affixed as a spittoon to the dash: the Jeep bucks over the dinosaur tracks of bulldozers and the work of the world goes on. The earthmovers, roaring on the world's largest tires across the hillside, emit brown exhaust from their stacks. The big-lunged D-9 Cats drop their blades with a crash, grading the earth to give access to the coal face. A drilling rig whines constantly, determining the width, depth and direction of the seam ahead of the dragline. Big front-end loaders move in and scoop up the coal and drop it thunderously into the trucks. The trucks rock down on their springs under 20 tons of raw coal and gun up with surprising speed, clashing gears past the D-9s and out onto the road.
Strip mining ruins the land, kills vegetation and disrupts wildlife habitats; it can pollute water miles downstream, and it creates enormous and enduring ugliness. More specifically, when coal in the ground is exposed to the air, and then to water, it makes sulphuric acid. In addition there is a high concentration of iron in coalfields, so a coal face left exposed to the elements is bound to produce acidic and ironized streams and ponds when rain runoff reaches the land below the open seam. Until recently mine operators merely left the coal seam exposed when they were done stripping and moved on, often leaving one or two other deeper seams at the same site untouched. It stands to reason that if the overburden is replaced and the old spoil coal isn't exposed to the air it won't produce acid. Hence, no polluted streams and lakes.
Back in the early '40s Guckert, a professional taxidermist from Pittsburgh, had bought a farm in Butler County. He found that his taxes kept going up as the stripped lands around him became valueless and the owners paid almost no taxes.
"There was good grouse hunting in the old strip mines," reflects Guckert, "but some other things made me mad. You'd come to a pit and find a deer at the bottom, dead of a broken back. They just can't jump those holes. And the streams were red with iron, and as acid as could be. No fish at all."
In time, Guckert decided to do something about it, but with many of the Pennsylvania legislators being men with some kind of interest in the mining industry, it was not an easy fight. A number of largely ineffectual laws were passed in the '40s and '50s, including one which required a ludicrous three-foot backfill for pits that were as much as 100 feet deep. Along with Representative John Laudadio, a conservationist and house leader, Guckert, then the executive secretary of the 14,000-member Allegheny County Sportsmen's League, saw meaningful legislation pushed into pigeonholes and tabled more times than a leftover turkey. Finally, in 1959, when one of these bills was languishing in committee, a state senator said, "Guckert, this one will never see the light of day."
Recalls Guckert, "I told him, 'Brother, you're finished.' "