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The death and life of Yellow Creek: in the mountains and hollows of Kentucky coal country, one group of citizens learns what it takes to protect their lives and their land.

On a mild winter morning, Yellow Creek runs caramel brown behind Larry and Sheila Wilson's house, smelling of the earth, pungent and natural. The surface ripples over hidden rocks and breaks into tiny white caps. From the porch it looks like a gentle wading creek, but as you cross the lawn you find that it is a powerful little river, full of muscle, racing ahead through this flat hollow to the next bend in the wooded mountains that have shaped five decades of Larry's life. This is the heart of coal country. One small hill has already been cut down from the nearby horizon, and another will come down soon. But for now the hollow seems at peace, slumbering in the brown shades of winter. The loud burbling of the creek blankets the yard. A great blue heron flies overhead. The damp air carries an acrid trace of coal smoke from a neighbor's chimney.

It's easy to imagine the creek as Larry knew it as a boy in the 1940s, the fourth generation of Wilsons to live here. "You gigged it, you fished it, you swam in it, you waded in it, you skinnydipped in it in the summertime, you caught frogs, you went spear fishing. You would catch mud turtles, you trapped muskrats and mink and fox; the whole community life centered on it," he recalls. But when he and Sheila moved back for good in 1977, tired of urban life in Lexington, Kentucky, the creek often ran thick and black like a liquid highway.

The Wilsons had planned to be farmers. They invested their savings in a tractor and plows, registered dairy goats, hogs, cows and several hundred chickens. The gray weathered chicken shed still stands in their yard under a giant tulip tree. They posted a fence along the creek bank to keep out the animals, but as the summer of 1980 turned dry, their well started dropping. They called upstream to the City of Middlesboro and the local leather tannery to ask if it would be safe to water their animals out of the creek. "They said there was nothing in there that would hurt anything--it just looked bad," Sheila says.

Within three months, their savings were dying. "We called a vet to look at one of our registered dairy goats. He said, 'that creek's what's wrong with him. Something in that water killed the bacteria in his stomach. He can no longer digest his food,'" Sheila says. In the end, they lost every animal: over 60 small pigs, seven cows, all of their rabbits and chickens. Larry began selling fruits and vegetables door-to-door to survive. "Sheila jokes about the time I shot a deer from the bedroom window," he says. "I had no choice. I had to feed my family." He even hunted squirrels for meat.

The Wilsons never became farmers. Their equipment still sits in a big jumble in the gray shed, along with a seven foot black snake that scares off the copperheads. Instead, they began fighting to clean up Yellow Creek--now in better shape than in decades--with a community group, Yellow Creek Concerned Citizens (YCCC), which they helped to found in 1980. They also fight to clean up the world through their work at the Highlander Research and Education Center in New Market, Tennessee, which has trained poor people in social activism since the 1920s. The Wilsons now drive 50,000 miles a year in their maroon minivan, burning up the hydrocarbons to share the lessons of Yellow Creek with hundreds of other grassroots environmental groups around the country. Larry likes to think that YCCC's story may be the most instructive of them all. "I don't know of any community group that has gone as long as we have, as diligently as we have, and taken so many things as far as we have," he says. To learn more, we climb into the minivan for a short tour of Bell County, Kentucky.

Yellow Creek begins at Fern Lake, a picture-postcard scene nestled up in the greenery of the mountains near the Cumberland Gap. It then drops several hundred feet over three miles into the Middlesboro basin, an ancient meteor crater that was once mostly filled with wetlands. Today, the small City of Middlesboro lies here, although you still find cattails around the neglected edges, and King Coal rules the countryside. Many of the surrounding mountains have been shaved flat on top, transforming them into eerie monuments like pyramids abandoned two thirds of the way up. Once miners remove the rounded summit of healthy soil to reach the thin layers of coal, the forests won't return, so the table top peaks grow back with tawny grass. But in Middlesboro, a grim industrial town of about 11,500 people, the major employer for many years was a leather tannery built in the 1890s beside Yellow Creek.

For decades the tannery used tannin made from the bark of local oak trees, which sent an occasional black tide flowing downstream but left no lasting damage. But in 1965, the tannery entered the chemical age, converting to a "chrome" tanning process that treated the hides with strong acids, and adding synthetic dyes and eventually more than 400 different chemicals. CCHW members describe the place as a Dickensian pit, rife with maggots on the animal hides and caustic chemicals that could strip off a man's toenails. Some of the people who worked there, they add, were too illiterate to read a clock or get a driver's license. But these 450 jobs were too important to lose in such a depressed region. The tannery wastes would flow into the neighboring municipal sewage treatment plant, which was literally being eaten alive by the deadly chemicals. This plant relied on bacteria-like organisms to digest the wastes that filled its tanks, an industrial stomach of sorts not so different from the dairy goat's. When it failed, sewage built up into sludge, and workers kept the system from constipating by pouring the raw waste, including the toxic chemicals, right into the creek.

Hotense Quillen owns a trailer park eight miles downstream, where she has lived for 65 years. At its worst, Yellow Creek would run with the ingredients of a Stephen King novel. "I had a girl living down in one of the trailers, and she came up and said you've got a sewer line broken down here," she says. She led the way through the stench down to the creek to show her the real problem. In the cold weather, fragile shelves of ice had formed along the bank as the water level dropped. "In the middle of the creek the steam was coming off the surface," she says. "Them cotton pickin' chemicals were so hot coming down the creek they were melting the ice and making that smell."

The Wilsons add the chapter on sewage. "We had mosquitoes breeding in running water," Larry says. "We couldn't go out in our yard without getting eaten by them. Pam once had so many mosquito bites as a baby she had an allergic reaction and almost went into shock." The stench was so strong Sheila adds, that "our kids would just be sitting here, and they'd have severe nosebleeds for no reason." Larry says, "We had to take Kevin to the hospital with his nose packed a couple of times because we couldn't stop it."

Yellow Creek winds north for 14 miles from Middlesboro to the Cumberland River, passing three small communities and 1,200 people. It's a beautiful stream under the leaning hardwood trees and tall thickets of rhododendrons. But as we continue, following the bank along paved and dirt roads, Larry falls into a toxic travelogue. "Cecil Hawkins has a son diagnosed with lymphoma," he says, as we pass a white house guarded by neatly trimmed bushes. The minivan ducks under a railroad trestle with one of the last "Posted: No Fishing" signs left on the creek from the early 1980s, when YCCC warned the public after the local health department refused. "Ceci Hurst was 15 when she died of leukemia," he says at a tiny yellow house almost built on the road. Then we pass a plot of brown grass growing wild that was a community garden until people grew afraid of what might be in the soil. In 1982, Hotense and a student from Vanderbilt University conducted a health survey which found that people who were drinking contaminated well water suffered more than the typical number of gastrointestinal ailments, kidney diseases, miscarriages and cancer. She once told an interviewer: "Every family told of kidney troubles, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes. One family showed us big welts right after they showered...I cried every night."

Other than the plain Baptist churches standing around every few bends in the road, sometimes no bigger than a room, the people along Yellow Creek had no social organizations--no PTA, no miner's union, no Elks club, no neighborhood improvement association. They had a belief, instead, that as Larry says, "My problem is my business," and a history of living in an area where dissenters always failed, bought off with jobs, chased away, or worse.

The next morning the Wilsons buy a box of Dunkin' Donuts, and we drive up to Williams Branch, a small community near the Cumberland River, to visit with Gene and Viola Hurst, who helped found YCCC in 1980. Viola starts a new pot of coffee, and Gene, who has the day off as a railroad engineer, wanders in in a nylon blue track suit. Viola says that she had gotten fed up with the creek and had taken to the phone.

"I called the local health department. "There's nothing we can do.' I called the state department. 'We're working on it,'" she recalls. "Then I called the federal government all the way up to the president and got put on hold. Gene got mad when the telephone bills started coming in at $200 and $300 a month."

"She's so stubborn she stayed on hold for ten minutes," Gene says.

"I'm not anti-man, but we women got fed up with our white clothes being gray, our white dishes being yellow and black. The house stank even though you'd just got through cleaning it. From the water," Viola says. "Women get angry and go for the throat. Men like to keep beating around the bush."

Gene takes a long moment to answer that one. "If you were a policeman, would you rather try to control a crowd of men or 10 angry women? What she says is true."

"Women in this area had never stood up," Sheila adds. "This changed all that." She keeps her own yellowed white coffee cup as a memento of the days when she had to soak dishes in the sink with toilet bowl cleaner to bleach them white again.

State agencies had been prodding Middlesboro to repair its sewage treatment plant since 1969, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) arrived in 1974, threatening the City with fines and giving it grants to make the improvements. But YCCC electrified the proceedings by bringing real people and anger to the dry bureaucratic process of reviewing discharge permits and such. And YCCC found its stage at City Council meetings, offering the politicians glasses of Yellow Creek water and prodding the volatile mayor into bombastic outbursts that excited the public and drew the media like flies. "When we started going to meetings, there was maybe two people in the audience," Sheila says. "By the time we had gone for six months, you couldn't get in the place. It was packed, and it was on the radio." YCCC kept adding to the drama until it refused to leave one night, occupying City Hall, an act of disobedience unheard of in southeastern Kentucky. Other groups began bringing grievances to City Hall, too. "They followed us not because we succeeded, but because we survived," Larry says.

YCCC members lived in fear and all carried guns. They put tape on their car hoods when they parked outside meetings to be able to tell afterwards if someone had tampered with the engines. And these were not idle exercises. One night in 1981, a member driving on the creek road was blinded by a spotlight. He ducked, and a rifle bullet flew over the steering wheel and shattered his back window. A few nights later on the same road Larry and Gene faced another spotlight. "They missed him with a rifle and tried us with a shotgun," Larry says. The two ducked, but the blast was so close to their window that the shotgun landed on their floor. Sheila started driving home from Middlesboro one day and discovered that her brake lines had been cut; fortunately, she could downshift to low gear to creep around the windy roads. But this atmosphere only strengthened the group. "It's so empowering to do something with no shadow of a doubt about whether it's right or wrong," Larry says. "To fight the good fight--it overcomes all that other stuff." By its peak in the early 1980s, YCCC had recruited 450 people to join for $1 and it drew 40 diehards to its meetings.

Larry and Gene still wish that YCCC had continued as public agitators. Political problems require political solutions, not science or the courts. But the rest of the group reached its limit. "There's no point beating your brains out, day in, day out," Hotense Quillen says. "These people won't look at you unless you're represented legally." In May 1983, YCCC filed a $31 million lawsuit against Middlesboro and the tannery. It left the court of public opinion and entered the court of law. The energy that people had devoted to the soap opera at City Hall now fueled all of the paralegal work that YCCC performed to cut costs to the bone. And, most striking of all, the group chose to skip environmental laws to build its case.

"The environmental laws were lobbied through by the national environmental groups in the 1960s and 1970s. They were primarily designed to protect wildlife and the environment, not human beings," Larry says. They have become complicated regulatory schemes to measure acceptable levels of pollution. But their sophistication made it impossible for a group like YCCC to prove that pollution actually hurts someone. "There's not one case in the U.S. where you can prove damages under environmental laws," Larry says. "It hasn't been done, especially not for wrongful death or health effects." YCCC turned instead to our old English common laws against trespass and nuisance. "We don't have to prove how many parts per million of chromium they dumped on my garden. We just have to prove they dumped it there, and I don't want it. They trespassed," Larry says. "And it's a nuisance. It stinks." YCCC also hired a real estate appraiser who found that property values along the creek had declined by 15 to 20 percent since 1981 because of the pollution. Wrongful death, Larry says, remains "the hardest one to prove."

YCCC did not sue alone. The U.S. Department of Justice brought suit on behalf of the EPA against the tannery, Middlesboro and Kentucky in January 1984, which became the main legal event for six years. And in 1988, YCCC settled its suit against Middlesboro for $390,000, some of which went into a general health fund. But after 10 years and five judges, the marathon suit against the tannery has yet to have its day in court. The company wouldn't pay its lawyers, causing one batch to quit and allowing the next one to get a court delay to study the case. Then in 1989, the tannery filed for bankruptcy, putting everything else on hold until recently. And in 10 years, YCCC has yet to find one of the owners, Robert Anderson, to serve his subpoena. "The strategy of delay is the best tactic any corporation can use against groups of poor citizens," Larry says. YCCC has shrunken by now to about a dozen active members. It now has a trial date for early next year. "As long as the current owners own the tannery, we're not satisfied," he says.

It's my last day here, and the Wilsons have a meeting at the Highlander Center to discuss the North American Free Trade Agreement, a topic that seems a million miles away from Yellow Creek. We leave early and drive along the creek bottoms, thick with sycamore trees that have brown and white bark spots swirled together like camouflage, and pass Sugar Run Picnic Area, named after the sugary water that ran downstream from old moonshine stills. We enter the forest of the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park, an uninhabited stretch that makes you sense what the Appalachians must have been like for Daniel Boone and his followers in the late 1700s. We crest the Gap and speed down towards the farmlands of the Tennessee Valley. On some mornings the Wilsons have seen a flock of wild turkeys feasting on a carpet of sod grass recently laid across an embankment, but we are too late for them today.

What has YCCC accomplished? Larry's answers change like the tides. At high optimism, he says that Yellow Creek has grown cleaner than it has been in many decades. Last winter it froze, which never happened when it flowed with chemicals. Middlesboro opened a new sewage treatment plant in 1986, one of the best in the region. The tannery solved its biggest problem by closing the giant barn-like beam house, which produced two thirds of its waste, and moving this work to Argentina. The building later burned down in 1989, not long after the tannery declared bankruptcy. YCCC now sees a report each month from the sewage plant, showing that the water flowing into the creek is clean enough for the operating permit.

When Larry's mood ebbs, he turns to what remains. The old sewage plant still has large silos of toxic sludge, the old tannery lagoons have soaked into the ground, and the 99 acres of marsh where the tannery illegally dumped its own sludge literally remains terra incognita. The EPA once tested the dirt for chromium, but who knows what else may lie there, or anywhere. The creek sediment still holds lots of unidentified toxic wastes. In a curious phenomenon, now that light hits the creek bottom for the first time in years, yellow algae blooms have appeared, feasting on the organic wastes in the sediment. These buried toxins may slowly surface, but what the Wilsons really fear is one of the giant floods that seem as sure as the rains. Driving along Yellow Creek, you can see the history of high water in the torn plastic bag streamers hanging six and 10 feet over the water in the tree branches. "The 1977 flood was over the tannery," Sheila says. "The next one is probably going to bring down buildings and all that stuff."

What should be done? "We don't have the solution, damn it," Larry says. "Where do you want to put it? We don't want this toxic material hauled off to another poor community. That spreads the misery." He's wary of the EPA's Superfund program, which usually ships the material to an incinerator or a giant landfill such as the one in Emelle, Alabama. "We don't believe there is a technology fix for this," he says. "Our society tells us that everything can be fixed. Not true. When you kill an environment, it's dead. The U.S. government, in all its power, can not restore it. I'm the fourth generation here. Now I must teach the fifth and sixth generations how to live with it. We're sitting on an aquifer that looks like good clean water. Don't touch it. The creek is beautiful, but you can't swim in it, you can't play in it, and you can't eat fish out of it. Forever."

By now, the Bell County mountains have faded to a jagged silhouette far away in the Tennessee Valley haze. It will soon be lunchtime, but Larry still has an Egg McMuffin in mind as he pulls into a drivethrough restaurant. "I can eat breakfast 24 hours a day," he says, cheering up again. His battles are always beginning, and his days may just be long enough to win.

Contact: YCCC, Route 2, Box AA68, Middlesboro, KY 40965/(606)248-8213. Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination is a good new book by Fred Setterberg and Lonny Shavelson that discusses YCCC and other groups. It costs $22.95 in stores or from the publisher: John Wiley & Sons, One Wiley Drive, Somerset, NJ 08875/(908)469-4400. And citizens groups with similar stories should please write: E Magazine, 28 Knight Street, Norwalk, CT 06851.
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Title Annotation:Bell County, Kentucky battle for clean water
Author:Nixon, Will
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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