Entry for February 08, 2006

The picture, showing a protester being dragged off from a strip mine site,  is from the cover of To Save the Land and People: A History of Opposition to Surface Coal Mining in Appalachia by Chad Montrie from the University of North Carolina University Press.  (ISBN:0-8078-2765-7).  You can reach the press at  uncpress@unc.edu.  A review of the book appears in Environmental History,  The book is available from Virginia Tech’s library.  They have an e-copy you can view online. 

I’m in Blacksburg to see the Appalshop films  at Tech and spend the night at Nathan’s.   To Save the Land and the People is also the name of the 1999  Anne Lewis film they showed tonight.  Both the book and the film take their name from the Kentucky organization in Knott county which helped put an end to the broadform deed.

A few of the anecdotes were notable,  especially the account by a man in his eighties who threatened to shoot seven lawmen who came to arrest him for stopping strip mining on the property of his late son-in-law, a Vietnam casualty.  He was released after his neighbors came to Hindman and  threatened a jailbreak .   I wish Lewis’s film had more of narrative thread to connect the interviews. 

To get a clearer idea of the group, I turned to Montrie, specifically to “Expedient Environmentalism”,   his article published in the January 2000 issue of Environmental History.

One of the first and best-known of the groups formed to battle coal and land companies was the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People (AGSLP), founded in 1965. AGSLP was initially a local effort by residents of Clear Creek, in Knott County, Kentucky, to stop stripping on local ridges. Members of the group blocked strippers and their bulldozers with their bodies, shot at them with guns, and even continued to work through the courts. They convinced Governor Breathitt to come to the region and see the damage being done by strippers for himself, and he was sincerely moved. Breathitt canceled the stripping permit for Clear Creek and used an executive order to strengthen reclamation requirements. But the problems that had brought the group into being continued, and AGSLP spread to Breathitt, Pike, Floyd, and Harlan counties within a few years.

Surface mining opponents also began resorting to sabotage. During the summer of 1967, they blew up a $50,000 shovel at the Kentucky Oak Mining Company’s site and $300,000 worth of machinery at a Tarr Heel Coal Company site in Lost Creek, including a bulldozer, auger, tow trucks, drills, and a welder. No arrests were made, and as a state police detective noted, even if arrests had been made a Knott County jury never would have convicted the suspects. A year later, in nearby Leslie County, Kentucky, saboteurs tied and blindfolded the night guard at the Round Mountain Coal Company, and over the next four hours, proceeded to destroy $750,000 worth of equipment using the company’s own explosives. In December 1968, the Blue Diamond Coal Company lost a diesel shovel, six bulldozers, a truck, drills, and a railroad car to explosives detonated by trespassers at a strip mine site in Campbell County, Tennessee, just across the state line. The damages added up to nearly one million dollars. Those responsible for this destruction were likely members of the AGSLP or associated with other local efforts to ban stripping, and some of them were undoubtedly deep miners familiar with explosives. AGSLP activists, including deep miners, attended meetings at which sabotage was planned, and they also were making public statements that could have incited such a response. At what was dubbed a “People’s Hearing on Strip Mining,” in Wise, Virginia, Warren Wright called on opponents of strip mining to bypass judges and legislators, who were too crooked and too heartless to trust. When Floyd County, Kentucky, residents began organizing against surface mining they circulated a petition to the Department of Reclamation, but warned that if the petition did not work, “other action will have to be taken by the people themselves.”

But back to the films.  I much  preferred Mimi Pickering‘s  Her 1975 Buffallo Creek Flood:  An Act of Man includes interviews at the time of the 1972 flood.  Unfortunately, we only got to see an excerpt that left me wanting more. 

Pickering’s  1984 film, Buffalo Creek Revisited, shown in its entirety, is  heartbreaking, documenting  how communities were disbanded after the flood, when the Pittston Corporation and the State Department of Highways refused to let people back on their land.  Local flood victims were moved hodgepodge to live in a series of camps filled with trailers stacked so close together, they might as well have been cordwood.  One resident interviewed likened it to living in a concentration camp.

The flood, blamed on an Act of God, but exacerbated by human negligence, the displacement and broken promises all have  resonances with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans.

Unfortunately, Nathan only got to see the Lewis film, which was shown last, as he had another meeting earlier.  When we went back to his place, we had his homemade  cobbler made from local winesap apples, topped with whipped cream.  He says he adapted the recipe from the Joy of  Cooking and the topping is equal parts flour, brown sugar and butter with a tough of cinnamon.  Yum!


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