Scars mark the land surrounding the mountain home of Melissa Smiddy. Now the scars are on her mountain soul. For the past three years, Smiddy, who is 34 and lives in Lick Creek with her husband and two sons, has had her house shaken by blasting operations from four nearby strip mines. Windows, walls, floor and nerves vibrate as the earth quakes when the strip miners blast with dynamite to loosen the ground above coal seams.
The explosions are called hard shots. As a citizen in Tennessee's largest coal- producing county, Smiddy has become radicalized in her opposition to strip mining. Raised for the life of a homebound wife and mother, she grew up in the family of a disabled coal miner. She graduated from high school and at 19 married a man who holds two minimum-wage jobs as a janitor and night watchman.
Smiddy's manner, in the tradition of Appalachian women, had been reserved and undemanding. Now, with fine-grained anger, she is shouldering her way into the risks of confrontation against one of the region's most ruthless forces. When the strip miners began gouging into the land around her two acres, the thought came to Smiddy that her family's rights to blast- free air, clean water and protections of the law ought to be more important than the coal industry's assaults on the land.
That conviction has transformed Smiddy's life. She is now a board member of Save Our Cumberland Mountains. SOCM (as in Sock-'em) is the 13-year-old group that has grown from a band of mountain rebels to one of the country's most sophisticated advocates for environmental sanity. From baking biscuits and sewing quilts, Smiddy has learned her way around Appalachian courthouses to look up permit applications of coal companies. She speaks out at public hearings and knows how to bird-dog state and federal officials when she thinks a scam is on. With a modesty that belies the fire within, she says of the past three years, "I've taken chances, I've done the unexpected."
Other coal field women have had similar conversions. They offer hope, except that a thousand more Melissa Smiddys could come pouring out of the hollows of Appalachia, and the odds against them would still be towering. Few environmental abuses are as destructive as strip mining, and fewer abusers as uncontrolled as the strippers. Thirty-nine years -- from 1938 to 1977 -- were needed for Congress to pass surface-mining legislation. Now, in less than a decade, the law has been hit with the same kind of hard shots that are blasting away the land near the Smiddy home.
One cause of the rubbles has been the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining.
In 1981, a full-of-himself James Watt began an anti-regulatory attack on OSM. It would lead, even by Reagan administration standards, to one of the most ill- planned and wreckless schemes in modern politics. Last April, Rep. Morris Udall, the fair-minded Arizona Democrat and chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs Committee, said: "I cannot recall any time in my entire congressional career when I have been faced with such overwhelming evidence of bureaucratic incompetence and dereliction of duty as I see at OSM today."
For the head of the office, Watt installed an Indiana state legislator who fought mightily -- but unsuccessfully -- to have the 1977 federal law declared unconstitutional. Once in Washington, he followed orders from Watt to "reorganize" the agency. Results came early. In 1982 the House subcommittee on Civil Service reported that of 948 experienced staff members working for OSM in January 1981, 470 -- nearly 50 percent -- were terminated or chose to resign, retire or transfer. OSM has had six directors in seven years, with three in the last year.
In the coal fields, whether in the backyards of women such as Melissa Smiddy or the ranchlands of the western plains, the effect of this chaotic management has led to a breakdown that will take the efforts of several future administrations to correct, assuming they will care. A report last month from the National Wildlife Federation, titled "Failed Oversight," says that from 1982 to 1984 OSM collected less than million out of $135 million in fines owed by law-breaking coal operators. As many as 6,000 mine sites have operated outside federal controls. In one four-year period, some 4,000 operators were ordered to stop their illegal mining. More than half ignored the orders and left the land unreclaimed when the coal was ripped out. Wildcat mining -- operators who skip the pretense of getting a legal loophole -- is rampant.
Melissa Smiddy, far from people such as James Watt, who victimized the powerless of Appalachia in the name of some ideological obsession against government regulation, has prepared for a long siege. The fight promises to be personal and costly. Threatening phone calls come in the night. Relatives and neighbors, dependent on strip mining for what few jobs are left in rural Appalachia, warn her against making trouble. You'll pay, they threaten.
Smiddy has no plans to back off. The enemy is dealing in coal. She's trading in iron -- her own.