It is not often that journalists confess they have run out of adjectives to describe an event, but two veterans who are covering the flooding in eastern Kentucky tell me they simply don’t have a sufficient vocabulary to describe what they see all over the region. “Unprecedented” has often been used. An editorial in the Whitesburg, Kentucky, Mountain Eagle last week called it “unnatural.” It can also be called “unnecessary.”

No degree in hydrology or meteorology is required to know that mountains denuded of soil and timber will cascade water and mud at a rate that nature never intended. As retired University of Kentucky Appalachian historian and native West Virginian Ron Eller has said, “The old people used to call the water that washed down from the mountains ‘the tides.’ That was before the stripminers came and turned mountaintops into tabletops.” No entity is more responsible for those tabletops than the Tennessee Valley Authority, an agency created in the first 100 days of FDR’s New Deal to end flooding in the Tennessee Valley.

RELATED STORY from Inside Climate News: Strip Mining Worsened the Severity of Deadly Kentucky Floods, Say Former Mining Regulators. They Are Calling for an Investigation. Read more.

TVA’s craze for cheap coal and cheap electricity is what brought large-scale stripmining to the region. Though it early on unionized its own employees, TVA placed a priority on non-union mined coal and stripmined coal. As Southeast Coal president Harry Laviers often stated, no thermal-coal deep miner committed to safety could possibly compete with those who bulldoze off the tops of mountains and send the “overburden” down the sides into streams and homes. FDR had promised that TVA would be a “yardstick” to measure good utility practices. In the mountains, that became a very short yardstick. TVA director David Lilienthal called the agency “democracy on the march.” It never marched in eastern Kentucky where TVA operators used the now outlawed broad-form deed to plunder coal from the mountainsides with no compensation to the landowners.

If TVA had really been the “greatest peacetime achievement of 20th-century America,” as proclaimed by historian Henry Steele Commager and the progressive agency so often praised by the nation’s liberals, it could have committed to safely mined, unionized, deep-mined coal. The fate of eastern Kentucky would have been far different and the worst of the recent flooding unnecessary. 

An overlay of the Kentucky counties that declared states of emergency because of flooding on July 28, 2022. Yellow and orange donate areas where coal companies have mined using mountaintop removal techniques. Mountaintop removal is a form of surface mining that excavates from the top of mountains down to coal seams, creating large-scale changes in drainage, vegetation, and other natural features. (Mining map is via Skytruth.)

TVA in its first 20 years quickly dammed up most of the Tennessee River and its tributaries for flood control. That has always been cited as its greatest achievement, but few bother to note that it moved 125,000 people from their homes and land to create those huge dams and lakes. By the 1950’s the agency was building some of the world’s largest coal-fired steam plants and began the search for the cheapest coal it could find. It sent a highly skilled engineer from its Coal Procurement Division in Chattanooga to eastern Kentucky to open negotiations with stripminers to determine if they could meet the requirements for very large supplies of cheap coal. After a competition, TVA picked Richard Kelly and Bill Sturgill, owners of Kentucky Oak Mining Company, as its supplier.

Blessed with TVA’s long-term contracts, Kelly and Sturgill, with the close technical assistance of agency engineers, began to experiment with much larger equipment. The largest coal auger ever built, with a seven-foot diameter, went into operation alongside the largest bulldozers ever seen in the mountains. By 1961 they were producing 50,000 tons of coal a week for TVA. Not even the largest US Steel captive deep mines could produce that much. The five-year contract made large-scale stripmining feasible in the mountains because it provided a guaranteed market. Using the contract with banks and equipment leasing firms, Kentucky Oak expanded quickly from the mines in Knott and Perry counties. What they could not produce themselves, they subcontracted to other firms, spreading stripmining across the coalfields. Giant L&N unit trains soon headed out of mountain hollows headed to TVA’s steam plants.

It was against these coal operators that the Appalachian Group to Save the Land and People organized in the 1960’s. Harry Caudill took an early lawsuit from the Ritchie family in Knott County to ask the Kentucky Supreme Court to invalidate the broad-form deed. The court ruled against him. Widow Combs laid in front of bulldozers to stop the stripping on her land. Uncle Dan Gibson, an Old Regular Baptist preacher, used his gun to stop stripping on the land of his nephew who was serving in Vietnam. They and others, like Joe Begley of the Citizen’s League to Protect Surface Rights in Blackey, Kentucky, and the Save Our Cumberland Mountains group in East Tennessee, became celebrity witnesses at legislative hearings that eventually led to the passage of more strict federal regulations in 1977.

In a report filed with the federal ​government, TVA said, “There are virtually no long-term adverse effects from surface mining conducted in accordance with TVA’s reclamation policies, excepting the consumption of coal itself and some possible visual effects.” In the same report it made no apologies to the victims of the broad-form deed, deeming it “not an environmental problem.”

TVA claimed it imposed its own regulations on stripmines. Its director of reclamation, James Curry, who once said “stripmining is part of the American Way,” insisted its regulations protected landowners. In fact, the agency’s regulations were even weaker than those imposed by the lackluster enforcement of Kentucky’s regulations. But TVA went further than even some coal lobbyists in opposing the critics of stripmining. TVA director Frank Smith, a celebrated liberal for his civil rights stands, called stripmine critics, “reactionaries.” Board Chairman Aubrey Wagner went even further as Congressman Ken Heckler of West Virginia advanced federal legislation. Testifying before the Tennessee legislature on April 3, 1971, Wagner said of stripmine critics:

“They would outlaw stripmining even in the face of the fact that such action would create a power shortage in which industrial activity would be severely curtailed, unemployment would increase, commerce would stagnate, and the home life would be disrupted. Their solution would, in my judgment, create problems of more disastrous consequences than the problems they seek to cure.” He labeled critics “shortsighted.”

In a report filed with the federal ​government, TVA said, “There are virtually no long-term adverse effects from surface mining conducted in accordance with TVA’s reclamation policies, excepting the consumption of coal itself and some possible visual effects.” In the same report it made no apologies to the victims of the broad-form deed, deeming it “not an environmental problem.”

TVA has always insisted the land it was stripping was good for nothing but growing trees anyway. TVA owns 40,000 acres of coal land in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky, where nothing but trees grow, but the agency hasn’t yet stripped its own property. Evidently one strips his own nest only after he has given everyone else a taste of the “American Way.”

The mountains have reaped a very bitter harvest from the practices of an agency created to aid people of the mountains and valleys of its region. It made the recent flooding worse. It prevented a much brighter future of safely mined coal from deep mines from happening. TVA owes reparations to the people of eastern Kentucky. It is a “yardstick” of far less than 36 inches. This unprecedented flooding was indeed unnecessary.

Jim Branscome is a retired managing director of Standard & Poor’s and a former journalist whose articles have appeared in the Washington Post, York Times, Business Week, and  Mountain Eagle of Whitesburg, Kentucky.  He was a staff member in 1969-71 at the Appalachian Regional Commission, a lobbyist for Save Our Kentucky in Frankfort, and a staff member of the Appalachian Project at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee.  He was born in Hillsville, Virginia, and is a graduate of Berea College in Kentucky.

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