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Mines Shape County and Land


Except for the omnipresent coal trucks and perhaps a glimpse of scarred mountaintop through the trees, it would be tough for an outsider driving the narrow twisting roads of Martin County. Kentucky, to guess that the area is the second largest coal producing county in the country. The mines are not immediately visible from the road, but the coal companies have utilized a majority of the county's land to provide about 5000 jobs and haul out well over 9 million tons of coal each year.

Although Martin Countains may not be crazy about some of the side effect of heavy mining--such as changed water patterns and flattened mountains--they are grateful for the jobs the coal companies provide. As one local minister puts it. "The coal companies are here to stay and we have to work with them to make things better."

"I've got no kick against the coal companies," says 59-year-old disabled miner Herbert Charles. His hands are covered with scars from bouts with the timbers he used to place to shore up the mines' roofs, and he has black lung. His father and four brothers died of the disease but as he says. "If it weren't for the coal companies I would have had a real hard time finding a job."

The coal companies are certainly not exploiting their employees. Most offer wages of over $35,000 a year with bonuses; added benefits bring the package will over $50,000. The lucrative wages are useful to the coal companies too, by keeping almost all the miners in the county nonunion. In an area where a small but sound house can sell for as little as $6000 and where there are few opportunities to spend money on recreation, miners are able to spend a lot on flashy cars and extravagant homes. Robert M. Duncan, chief executive officer of Martin County's only bank, says that in one recent week his bank gave more loans for back-yard T.V. satellite dish receivers than for everything else combined.

The biggest employer in the county is the "Tiki" mines: Martiki, Pontiki and Toptiki. The mines are all owned by Mapco, a Tulsa. Okia energy firm, which traditionally names all its mining operations after the Polynesian good-luck "Tiki" dolls. Martiki is the second largest mountain-top strip mine in the United States and therefore probably the world, shipping almost 3 million tons of coal each year. Martiki officials are clearly proud of their operation and sincere in their excitement at the prospect of resulting the landscape. Martiki's 18,000 acres cover two mountains on opposite sides of a steep valley. In about 25 years when the coal is gone and the strip-mined land is evened out, the entire area will be at a level about half way between the original peaks and the creek bend in the valley below. "There's not enough flat land around here," says Al Toumisto, supervisor of Mapco's land reclamation project, speaking of his company's plans to make the land usable for farming and light industry.

To the uninitiated, full-scale coal-mining is an incredible sight. Two hundred feet below where the hillside was a few years ago, dump trucks bigger than houses haul 175-ton loads of rock. The Martiki mining operation is centered around the "Mountain Mover," a power shovel about the size of a small airplane hanger. The shovel's huge bucket--which can easily hold a pickup truck--takes 76-cubic-foot bites out of the mountain 24 hours a day.

One of the only mixable areas on its lease Martiki will not exploit is a small cemetery currently standing on 60-foot diameter column of rock in which the valuable coal seams are clearly visible. Martik; was able to get permission to move most of the graves scattered over their leased area in small family plots but was denied access to that one pinnacle close to the company offices. The only way to visit the grave site now is by helicopter or on belay, but when Martiki is through, there will be a "nice road leading up there to a small parking lot," says Tuomisto.

Such large-scale earth-moving can have serious implications for the entire region's ecology. There was never much topsoil in the area but thick forest held the ground and rainwater tumbled down innumerable streams hidden in extremely steep valleys. But during and after mining, when the trees and topsoil are gone, water flows straight down the hillside, taking a good portion of the mountain with it. Silt has filled in many-of the area's streams, and the water table is deteriorating as previously reliable wells run dry. Martiki has built a large silt dam to capture the dirt in water running off the mining site, but even company engineers admit they can't trap it.

The coal companies have very good relations with the Martin County government and are well represented at the weekly Kiwanis club lunches. Companies have donated the money and equipment to build lights for the county's baseball field and coal executives and politicians alike make flowery speeches about "working together to make this county a better place to live." Because of this visible support and all the money they pay in wages the coal companies resent charges that they are not doing enough to help the county. Michael H. Vallez. Mapco's vice president in charge of all the Martin county Tiki mines, says a recent land study charging the large companies of hurting the region by taking money out of the county was biased. He notes that "every time you have a MacDonald's or a Pizza Hut move in that's an absentee land owner."

Tomorrow: The Future of Martin County.

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