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Former federal strip-mine inspector leads decades-long effort to reforest mines in Eastern Ky.

Rural Blog

Coal companies are required to reclaim mined land when they’re done with a site, but one Interior Department inspector realized that the companies’ practices weren’t encouraging forests to grow back. So the native of Eastern Kentucky has spent the past two decades bringing them back on his own, Gabriel Popkin reports for The Washington Post Magazine.

Patrick Angel on his farm near London. (Post photo by Jahi Chikwendiu)

Patrick Angel spent his career in the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. “For 25 years, he oversaw the process that may represent humans’ best attempt to date at total annihilation of land: strip-mining and mountaintop-removal mining of coal,” Popkin reports. “He told coal companies to do one thing when they were done with a site: pack the remaining rubble as tightly as possible, and plant grass — the only type of plant he trusted to hold the ground in place.”

But that didn’t allow tree roots to take hold, so the forests that had existed on most of the nearly 1.5 million acres of mined land in Appalachia weren’t growing back. In 2002, six years after foresters at Virginia Tech and the University of Kentucky tried to persuade him to try other methods, Angel saw that they were working, and his “guilt was almost overwhelming,” Popkin reports. Angel told him, “The lightbulb came on. I said, ‘Oh my God, what have we done?’”

With the help of local volunteers and some bulldozers, Angel has spent the past two decades trying to reforest mined areas. The dozers rip up the ground and loosen the rubble so tree roots can take hold, then volunteers plant saplings from species native to the area: tulip poplars, oaks, pines and chestnuts, Popkin reports.

“Thanks in large part to Angel, now 70, more than 187 million trees have been planted on about 275,000 acres of former mines, an area more than six times the size of the District of Columbia,” Popkin reports. This represents one of the most ambitious restoration efforts in one of the country’s most devastated places. It is led not by big name-brand environmental groups but by people from the mountains, operating with small budgets and with little fanfare or recognition.”

Washington Post map from U.S. Geological Survey National Land Cover Database (Click for larger image)

The federal government has helped little aside from the ARC grant. As the Obama administration was ending, it issued regulations “that all but required reforestation for surface-mine reclamation,” Popkin notes. “One of President Trump’s first acts, supposedly to reward the coal miners and industry leaders who supported him, was to kill the new rule.”

Popkin’s long-form piece delves into the history of coal and surface mining in Eastern Kentucky, and how it has affected the land and the people. It’s a lovely example of national reporting that avoids parachute-style coverage. Popkin is a science writer who was born and raised in Kentucky, and chief photographer Jahi Chikwendiu and drone videographer Ron Garrison are from Kentucky too. The story was partly funded by a grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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