Getting Things Done Quietly in Appalachia
Tens. — Barbara Walters is not to be corning to interview J. W. Bradley, Neil McBride or John Williams in this Appalachian hill town anytime soon. Nor is any national political candidate about to lead a train of TV cameras to show the proper concern for the wave after wave of strip mined mountains and. the resultant destruction wrought by the acids and uprooted earth. Appalachia is no longer “in” for Outsiders who used it as a genuine backdrop for their superficial compassion. And insiders would just as well have the illusion of outside help evaporate, so that they can rely on themselves to begin the process of change.
Ask Bradley, McBride and Williams, starters of two citizen groups in East Tennessee a few years ago, what changes are needed and you’ll get a list born of their daily investigations and struggles against powerful’ coal companies and their indentured local and state governments. You’ll get a lecture about the TVA’s tyranny over the land it was designed to save from corporate neglect or corporate predation.
YET HERE in the land of the powerless and poor,’ the Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), headed by the electrician, ETRC) and the East Tennessee Research Corporation (ETRC)
headed by the young lawyers, McBride and Williams are writing a new kind of history. They are building civic institutions from the bottom up around people and injustice. And they are accomplishing wonders compared to their annual budget of little more than $100,000.
SOCM lobbies and fights stripmining. ETRC wins lawsuits for property tax reform and services community health and legal aid groups, community development corporations and black lung disease associations. Working against a back- ground of bitter poverty virtually untouched, ETRC says, “by the New Frontier, the Great Society, the New Federalism and nearly all other efforts by state and federal planners to raise the area’s standard of living,” it takes a steely determination to hang in there.
Most people who have not seen stripmining just think of large gouges in the land. Most people would never forget a tour of the destruction led by J. W. Bradley, founder of SOCM. They would bump over gutted dirt roads in his worn truck and see firsthand the long reach of stripmined land. It has wrecked a useful timber industry, destroyed thousands of acres of scarce farmland, caused extensive flood damage, greatly increased the siltation in city reservoirs and TVA’s lakes and inhibited investment in new resources.
After ‘the tour, you don’t disbelieve when McBride claims that stripmining has “literally undermined the social, economic and spiritual life of the region.”
In just three years, ET C’s staff has won a major court case that overhauled the state’s method of taxing mineral reserves and added mil- lions of dollars to state tax rolls. (Coal companies have been notorious in grossly underpaying their property taxes.) ETRC has achieved success in obtaining available federal revenue for children’s health clinics, in speeding up enforcement of water pollution standards against the coal industry, and in helping reform the administration of the United Mine Workers pension fund that is vital to hundreds of thousands to people in coal country.
ETRC AND SOCM are using the available laws to stem the damage to roads by overweight coal trucks, to set up the first rural legal services in Tennessee, to make the TVA a little more open and accountable in its vast utility operations.
Meanwhile, readers interested in obtaining information about ETRC and SOCM can send stamped-addressed envelope to these groups in Jacksboro, Tenn., 37757.