The Ask Master

If you really were from Southern Illinois, you'd know that the Surface Mining Reclamation and Control Act of 1977 set strict environmental performance standards for surface coal mines.

The Act requires restoration of the mined land to conditions that are equal or better than they were before mining. Much of the land is reclaimed to fish and wildlife habitat.

There is no doubt that surface coal mining is disruptive, but it is a short-term land use and in many cases prevents urban sprawl.

Dave Morris

First off, bucko, don't tell me where I did or didn't grow up. While some may question my authority to speak knowledgeably as to the sound of one hand clapping, and others may doubt my ability to construct a simple, elegant proof of Fermat's Last Theorem, I think that—excluding the possibility of some paranoid, Philip K. Dick-esque fantasy in which my entire childhood was staged by malevolent, unseen forces—I can be trusted to know in which part of the part of the country I spent years one through 16 inclusive. To put it more succinctly: I am from Southern Illinois, so—as we are fond of saying in that part of the country—blow me.

Second, if you were really Dave Morris of Seattle and not P.R. McFlack from the Peabody Coal Company, you would realize that dismissing, with a distracted wave of your hand, the environmental impact of strip-mining is the rhetorical equivalent of attacking the entire United States Marine Corps armed only with a pointed stick and a "Semper Fi is for Pussies" T-shirt.

The most obvious flaw in your reasoning is your failure to notice that the United States is not the only country in the world (don't worry, plenty of Americans share this misconception). Even if this law solved every surface mining-related environmental problem on and under U.S. soil (it doesn't), that still leaves about 94 percent of the world's landmass unprotected. There's plenty of surface mining going on right now in Indonesia, Guyana, Venezuela, and a host of other countries not known for their strict environmental protection policies.

But even here in America, reclamation is hardly synonymous with conservation. Perhaps the folks at home are not familiar with surface mining reclamation. Let's bring them up to speed:

In the bad old days, the mining company would come along, bulldoze off the top of an entire mountain, harvest a vein of coal some 4 feet in thickness and leave big piles of dirt and rock everywhere.

In the brave new world so highly praised by our correspondent here, the rules are much, much stricter. Nowadays, the mining company bulldozes off the entire top of a mountain, harvests their coal, and scrupulously disposes of the big piles of dirt and rock by using them to ENTIRELY FILL some nearby valley. Then they plant a few peonies on what's left of the site, perhaps erect a shoddy aluminum swing set, and declare the whole mess a National Treasure.

It doesn't take a genius to notice that this might not be the sort of process that the original residents of the mountain—or for that matter, the valley—would regard with an entirely benevolent eye. When you return to your burrow to find that your habitat has been buried under 30 million tons of someone else's habitat, it takes a native species of an exceedingly tolerant bent to shrug its shoulders philosophically and say, "Ah, well, it's just a bit of short-term land use."

Tell you what, Dave. I've got a plan: I'll come over and tear down your house, with you and your family inside. I'm going to do this because I've decided I want to have a bake sale right where your house currently stands. It's the perfect spot, and I've really got my heart set on this.

It'll all be OK, though, because after the bake sale is over, I'm going to reclaim the surface by building a new house on the very same spot, which I'll live in myself. I hope you won't find this short-term land use disruptive. After all, nothing much will have changed; at the end of the day, there'll still be a house there with a guy living in it. In fact, the site will be even better than it was before, because I'll let the neighborhood kids play in my yard instead of chasing them off with an old shovel the way you do now.

I stand by my original claim: Surface mining is an ecological disaster. That it is one among many doesn't make it any less damaging. And, finally, this is the last column about geology that I'm going to write this year. Couldn't you people ask more questions about expensive Scotch, or ladies' undergarments, or something else that would be a little more fun to research?

Wondering how much fun Marty could have with a bottle of 18-year-old Macallan and a lingerie-clad lady of approximately the same age? Write or Ask Master, Seattle Weekly, 1008 Western Ave., Suite 300, Seattle, WA, 98104.

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