OK, here’s the deal. If you just give me the rights to strip mine coal in your “fish and wildlife” preserve I’ll you lots more already stripped land, and by the way, don’t worry about the mercury, arsenic, boron and sludge we dumped there. It’s perfectly safe.
Thus, went the meeting with area sportsmen as Indiana State officials tried to sell the public on a plan offered by Black Beauty Coal Company (more widely known as Peabody Energy) to strip mine around 1,000 acres of hardwood forest in the Glendale Fish and Wildlife Area near Montgomery, Indiana.
In 2004, Black Beauty went to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, the DNR, asking for an exchange of land so they could strip a forested part of the preserve. They were told to bring the idea back because they did not want to create a highly charged political issue during an election year. The man who told them that was John Davis, a DNR deputy, who also happened to be then Lt. Governor Kathy Davis’ husband.
Davis told the story before a packed meeting room in Montgomery, Indiana the center of Indiana coal country these days. State officials described the nefarious deal to a skeptical crowd.
Kyle Hupfer, DNR director withstood more than an hour of questions about the deal using members of his staff to answer what he could not. It was part of what he insists will be an open process as it is decided whether to make such a swap.
Hupfer asserted no decision has been made, and it was early in the process.
Large obstacles remain, and the room full of disgust at the very idea is foremost. But the pot is sweet. Hupfer claimed a trade could create as much as 15,000 to 20,000 acres of new hunting and fishing habitat in the state. A few minutes later he boasted 20.000 to 30.000 acres. But that was after he insisted that he knew nothing because the initial geological study was not complete.
Hupfer professed his objectivity but it was clear that Black Beauty had the upper hand. He averred that once a state issued “request for proposal” was complete, anyone could bid for the coal. But then he said there would be no coal processing “on site” which essentially means Black Beauty would be the only bidder since they had processing facilities near by.
Most of more than 200 people in the room applauded the question of why they used eminent domain to secure important sections of the preserve and now proposed to give it to a private party the rip apart.
Sentiments were not universal. About ten percent of the crowd were beneficiaries of Black Beauty’s largess and they spoke well of the company, mainly their own lifestyle coming from wages working in the existing mines. They know their jobs end when the coal is gone and that this deal will seal a more secure future. This is a scenario played out hundreds of times where coal is king.
But coal mining does not enlist the support of everyone in coal country although they would like for everyone to believe that. In fact, Hupfer tactfully asked the crowd this long question.
“I hate to ask this question and I won’t, I guess because it is premature, but I will go ahead, just so we have it for the record so you guys can get it in. How many folks think that under no circumstances and regardless of the dollars, regardless of the land, no matter what we bring to you, your answer would be ‘Hell No!”
About ninety percent proudly raised their hands making it known they thought the deal was bad.
When he asked the simpler question, “how many think it is worth taking the next step?” the section from Black Beauty let their support be heard.
Clearly disturbed at the response of the assembly, Hupfer chimed in, “I truly believe that the folks and they can speak for themselves, but the folks who believe that this shouldn’t take place aren’t saying it because it is Black Beauty and aren’t saying it because of any coal company and aren’t opposed to coal mining. That is something that I recognize at least that the folks that are concerned for this area mining aren’t opposed to coal mining in general.”
Asked later where he got his data to make that determination, he replied, “I don’t think this tonight or hopefully anytime turns into a pro-coal, anti-coal – how many hunters in this room, how many fishermen are not opposed to coal mining in general though you would not want it on this property? Pause. “So there, there are thirty or forty.”
It is easy to understand their reluctance to make it a coal issue. Everyone knows that once coal comes to your neighborhood, your life will forever change. Blasting alone will change your life and the endless dust clouds and noise of all the heavy machinery becomes an omnipresent assault on the serenity of your countryside. Your objections to the pig farmer down the road suddenly become moot.
The Glendale Area was like I remembered most of southern Indiana being as I grew up. Lots of nature, fewer cars and a pictorial mixture of prairie and forest. But today it is an oasis of more than 1,400 areas underwater and 8060 acres of land. It is mostly supported by sales of hunting and fishing licenses and taxes levied on sport hunting and fishing equipment.
Dogwood Lake is its aquatic centerpiece sporting catfish, crappie, bluegill and largemouth bass. Eagles are nested “on the south end” but the area in question is to the north, according to one official who said that if an eagle’s nest was found on the proposed site, “I assume that would be a deal breaker.”
“If this was just about coal,” claims Hupfer, “we would not be here. Again, this is a unique funding opportunity. If the hunters and anglers of the state don’t want this say ‘we hate it,’ we’ll just end it. But if you are DNR, it’s important for us to find new opportunities.”
WordNet at Princeton University defines opportunity as “a possibility due to a favorable combination of circumstances. Chance.”
Both may be apt in this case since it is a combination of circumstances but the chance is dependent on the amount of trust one has for the principals of the deal.
Hupfer is wrong when he claims that this should not be an issue about coal. Strip mining is the most ecologically destructive industrial practice there is in Indiana. Sometimes it appears that coal interests will stop at nothing to extract personal wealth from our common weal. Even suggesting exploiting one of the rare nature preserves in SW Indiana as a stripper pit is arrogant and condescending.
Time will tell if Hupfer meant his rhetoric since it’s clear he wanted to ignore the reality of his meeting and the anger most of those in the room felt toward his proposal.
JOHN BLAIR is president of the environment health advocacy group, Valley Watch and earned a Pulitzer Prize for news Photography in 1978. He can be reached at: Ecoserve1@aol.com