SI Vault
J. D. Reed
September 20, 1976
A loud-mouthed, no-nonsense, incorruptible public servant and the most stringent strip-mining laws in the country have reclaimed Pennsylvania land that once resembled a vision of hell
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September 20, 1976

Healing The Wounded Earth

A loud-mouthed, no-nonsense, incorruptible public servant and the most stringent strip-mining laws in the country have reclaimed Pennsylvania land that once resembled a vision of hell

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Bouncing into the next mine site, Lancaster glances balefully at a heap of rubbish—old mattresses, bottles, cans, a broken chair—and says, "Looks like a weekend ecologist has been here." That's Ed's code word for anyone who "bitches all week about strip mining and what it's doing to the area he lives in, and then on Sunday uses the pit for his personal garbage dump."

As Lancaster pilots the Jeep up the mining road, Guckert spots something he doesn't like. "Ed, stop over here a minute. See that drainage hose? It's supposed to carry water pumped from the coal seam down to a settling pond where the water's treated with lime and chemicals before it can get into the watershed. But somebody got lazy. They're pumping that acid water into a spoil pile."

Lancaster goes into action. He throws the cowboy hat into the back seat and dons his official hard hat. As he accelerates toward the dragline where the foreman's truck is parked, the tobacco juice in the dashboard cup threatens to spill. "You're in serious violation of your mine-drainage permit," he tells the foreman, "and I am officially ordering you to cease and desist mining."

The foreman looks like he might either say "Yes, sir," or try a looping overhand left to the forehead. "Close it down, bud," Lancaster says evenly. The foreman figures what the heck it's not his mine, and calls the owner on two-way radio from his truck. The dragline, loaders and drills fall silent.

The operator will have a hearing in Harrisburg before an examiner. He'll probably be fined, and the violation will go against his record. Too many violations and his operator's license will be lifted.

"You take a dragline like that," Guckert says, pointing. "If you were to rent one, it costs $2,400 a day with the operator. If this guy is shut down an average of two weeks, it's going to cost him a bundle to get back to mining after the hearing. That hurts. This operator has never had a violation before, so we'll try to get him a hearing as soon as we can."

Al Hamilton, the operator in question, is a thin, middle-aged man wearing a predictable frown below his red hair. Dressed in Levi's, dirty Wellington boots and a sport shirt, he could be mistaken for a guy driving home from a factory in his pickup truck. But the pickup—fitted with exhaust stacks, antennas for three radios, mag wheels, oversize radial tires, enough chrome, interior trim and accessories to satisfy a sheik—is easily more expensive than a Cadillac. "I'll bet he's clearing half a mil for himself," smiles Big Ed.

But Al Hamilton is not figuring net worth at the moment; he's calculating how much this is going to cost him and what he's going to do about it. "I guess I'll have to go up there and fire about three of those dopes," he says, booting stones a long way down a hill.

Nonetheless, he feels Guckert's action is fair. "I was in violation, so I'll suffer the loss. It's tough, but I know that Guckert would bust U.S. Steel's coal operation for the same thing. He's a fair enforcer, with the big guys as well as us small fry."

As if to prove there's no grudge, Hamilton shows Guckert and Lancaster some of the reclamation projects of which he's particularly proud—a farm now being worked, cattle grazing on an old strip-mine site, some acreage planted in white birch ("Would you believe it—those things are worth $12 apiece now?"), some in meadow grasses.

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Ed Lancaster 1 0 0
William Guckert 2 0 0
Pennsylvania 277 0 1
Emerson Bowser 1 0 0
Al Hamilton 1 0 0