In the crude cabin he built with his own hands on Buffalo Run, Rob Smith and his wife, Polly, the children of affluent suburbia, complained that fate has played a dirty trick on them.
Less than six months after they decided to trade suburban living in Silver Spring for a simpler, rustic life here, they have become central figures in a strip mining feud in this picturesque valley near the West Virginia border.
"We might as well move back to the city," Rob Smith, 25, declared last week. "They're destroying our whole reason for being here."
The strip mine, which would be the first in an otherwise unspoiled valley, would be a small operation, but the controversy around it tells a great deal about the changing face of strip mining in Western Maryland, one of the few coal belt areas ignored by strip mining opponents in recent years.
With the industry becoming more regulated and image conscious, the issue is no longer as black and white as it was here a few years ago, or still is in larger coal producing states like West Virginia and Kentucky.
Although ugly scars of strip mining done in decades past in Maryland remain, many of the most obvious ills have been dealt with: the huge mud slides spilling onto roads and into rivers; stripping on steep slopes (state law prohibits stripping on hillsides greater than 20 degrees); the uncontrolled acid and sediment clogging streams; and the acres of unreclaimed land left abandoned.
Even the participants are different.
Those fighting the mine are not long-time residents craggy faced mountaineers who are worried that strip miners will unearth the graves of their forefathers or destroy their farmland.
Rather, they are newcomers; weekend and summer residents and people like the Smiths, who have given up urban living to return to nature. To them, the issue is quality of life - something no amount of state or federal regulation of strip mining can do much about.
"It's weird. Everywhere you go they, the people with the money and big machines keep following you," said David Lascombe, who lives with his wife, Nancy, and four children in a rickety farmhouse a half time from the Smiths.
"The whole point of my living here is the screnity, the cleaness of the air," continued Lascombe, a bearded Australian, who moved to Buffalo Run Valley two years ago from Montgomery County. "Strip mining will totally destroy that. My big high is walking in the woods alone. It's mainly a question of esthetics and how much value you put on it."
By national standards, strip mining in Maryland is a small industry.It produces only 2.5 million tons of coal each year, and is confined to only two counties in the western corner of the state - Garrett and Allegany.
Unlike large coal-producing states where coal interests dominte the state legislature, its voice in Annapolis is not a strong one, and the industry faces tougher regulation than in many other states.
"Among the various Appalachian states that I've seen, our people do as good or better a job than anyone with reclamation," said Dr. Eugene Straub, one of the area's most persistent strip mine critics. "It's possible to do good, solid reclamation in the state, but it's not guaranteed by any stretch of the imagination."
As Straub, a member of the state Land Reclamation Board, and others see it, the proposed federal strip mining bill would have little impact in the state because its requirements are less stringent than state ones.
Serious strip mining issues remain, however, he said. Among them are: forcing operators to comply with stricter laws now on the books, reclaiming the thousands of acres ravaged by strip miners in the past; and dealing with the great uncertainity over the long term effects of strip mining on area water quality, particularly the run-off into the Potomac River, which flows through the area.
Few strip mine protests are now heard in the area, he added in an interview last week. "It tends to be a local problem. Down here, they're inured to strip mining. They're beat, they're down. Most of the ambitious young people just get out of here."
The irony of the Buffalo Run controversy is that the coal firm involved, Bridgeview Mining Co., has, by most accounts, one of the better reclamation, is, if we had to pick an operator, we'd pick Bridgeview," said one landowner, James Van Riper.
The firm's president is Harry Whyel, whose family has been mining coal in Pennsylvania, West Virginiaand Maryland since 1885. Like many strip mine operators, he feels overtaxed, over-regulated and misunderstood. Like some operators he also has holdings in Wyoming and is considering moving his operations there.
"What gets me is most people see the strip mining that was done 20 years ago and don't bother to find out that things have changed," he said.
Whyel considers the Smiths and others on Buffalo Run irresponsible critics.
"They're against strip mining because it's a dirty word and we're the bad guys," he declared at the end of a 90-minute interview last week. "They're complaining. They're infringing on our rights. We've spent a lot of money on this project and this is a good industry for the state."
What angers Whyel most is that he bought rights to strip-mine 21 acres in the valley, spent $8,000 on engineering studies, and filed a lengthy application for a strip mining permit three months ago. Yet, he didn't hear a word of protest until a public hearing on the permit last week before the state reclamation board.
At the hearing in Westernport, Smith and 10 other valley residents charged that dust from the strip mine would clog their valley, that its noise would disturb their way of life, that this trucks would wreck their roads, that run off might endanger an elderly woman's well, and that the entry of strip miners on the peaceful valley would run it for vacation use.
They were told the strip mine would be in operation only four to six months, that the land would be returned to its original contour and replanted, that the operator would be required to repair any damage done to wells in the area, and that the only real way to stop strip mining in the valley would be to get the county to pass a zoning law to prohibit mining in the valley.
"We've paid more taxes than they'll ever get out of that valley," Whyel said at one point. "We paid $19,000 in license fees last year, just for the privilege of operating in the county."
Smith and the others were unimpressed. "Now, I'm a builder. I build vacation homes in the valley," Rob Smith said. "No one's going to want to build a vacation home in a place with a strip mine. You'll be putting me out of business."
"I don't know anything about strip mining," he added later. "We just don't want them in the valley. We're pretty much self sufficient there. We grow our own vegetables, shoot our own game and cut our own wood. We want to keep it that way."
At the urging of the board, Whyel agreed to revise his mining schedule so that he won't start the preject until next October instead of this spring. This may mean he will have to lay off soce of his 14-man work force sometime next summer, he said. He estimated that he will mine 30,000 to 40,000 tons of coal from the plot. This would gross his company a minimum of $450,000 at current coal market prices.
Whyle said he is becoming increasingly frustrated with operating in the state. "There's a good possibility that we'll pull out of the state of Maryland in a few years because its getting to the point where we have no control over what he can do here," he said.
Nothing would please Jim Ross, the colorful mayor of Friendsville and one of the few public officials in the area who would like ban strip mining.
"The strip miners have already destroyed the mountains of southern Appalachia. Now they want to destroy Garrett County," he said last week. "This country has an agricultural and recreation economy. You can't have that with coal. They just don't mix. If people wake up, we can still save this area."