12 January 2008


When I worked as Inspector of surface (strip) coal mines for the Kentucky Dept. of Natural Resources, in the Appalachia part of eastern Kentucky, in (bloody) Harlan and Leslie counties, the job consisted largely of interpreting maps. The Operators (mining companies) submitted plans on large-scale maps and my job was to determine how the plans fit reality, as depicted on 7.5x7.5 USGS quad maps and the existing landscape, which was rugged in the extreme. As the actual mining progressed, I was responsible for determining whether the operation stayed within the parameters of their plans and Kentucky surface mine laws. (Generally, the legacy of mining in Appalachia is one of severe environmental destruction. I, in my environmentalist idealism, went there to “save the hills” and the Kentucky River which flows through my beloved Inner Bluegrass.)

There were map details galore to observe, such as property lines, contour lines, placement of access roads, placement of overburden and its angle of repose, and construction of dams and catch basins (I was a certified dam inspector). I was responsible, also, for watching out for “wildcat” mines in my area. (I was “the Law;” it’s a wonder I didn’t get shot!) I spent hundreds of hours tromping the hills, many times with U.S. Forest Service Rangers, cautious for rattlesnakes and avoiding “hollers” that had empty corn bags lying at their entrances, indicating that moonshiners were at work up-holler. (Leslie County [county seat: Hyden, population 600] got its first road to the outside world in the early 1960s. The federal highway through parts of the county measured 30 feet wide and was unpaved in parts.)

Back to maps: the mining Inspector’s relation to the Operator was adversarial (even though I amiably sipped coffee with them in their trucks) in that I was trying to catch them at their cartographic subterfuges. I interpreted maps in the office (in Hazard), standing on the mountainous minescape, in my vehicle, and even in the Operator’s trucks. It was a contest--worth a whole heap of expense to the Operator--between the State (represented by me) and the Operator, of who could best interpret cartographic truth and fiction.

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