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No. 1828:
Friendly Fire

Today, we are caught in friendly fire. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Environmentalists are usually allies of paleontologists and archaeologists. We often find them joining forces to oppose encroachments on the land, so as to preserve the historical record. But now a strange event has them embattled.

This story begins with strip mining for coal. Years ago, strip mining created appalling damage in much of Appalachia. Vast parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky were laid waste by rapacious mining — left looking like WW-I no-man's-land.

Now strip mining in Alabama has exposed a large amount of rock that hasn't seen the light of day for 310 million years. Embedded in it are tracks left by creatures from the carboniferous era. Science magazine tells how members of the Alabama Paleontology Society have been converging on an area around Jasper, Alabama. They call their gatherings track meets.

These amateur paleontologists are creating a huge inventory of the tracks left by amphibians, millipedes, horseshoe crabs, and fish. Whether some of these are reptile tracks is a question that this site might help resolve, since reptiles were just evolving.

Experts are calling this the richest site of ancient tracks ever discovered. Some leading paleontologists call it a biological Rosetta Stone. But, there's a catch. By 1977, it'd became clear how much terrible and irreversible damage strip mining had done to the American landscape. The government began requiring companies to restore land before erosion could complete the destruction. As a result strip mining now leaves very little devastation.

Alabama's New Acton Coal Company has therefore been ordered to begin filling in this site by September 2003. They must bulldoze it and cover it with a thirty-foot layer of fill.

In June, an Alabama legislator introduced a bill that would allow the company to give the land to the Department of the Interior. That way Interior could make it exempt from reclamation. The company was willing; but then someone complained that a cliff face on the site was a hazard. At that point the Alabama Surface Mining Commission ordered reclamation to continue. Now the paleontologists are seeking an eleventh-hour stay.

All this should be resolved by the time many of you hear this. Meantime, there is no battle of good versus evil here. Once we grow casual about setting aside environmental regulations, we might as well not have them in the first place. Yet rules without exceptions always court trouble.

So, all this maneuvering is probably in our long-term best interest. Yet, I think about that third of a billion year-old rain forest — once green and wet, now imprinted upon stone, a story waiting to be read. And I surely hope this marvelous site does not get buried before it yields its full trove of information.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

E. Stokstad, Ancient Trackways in Strip Mine Threatened by Reburial. Science, Vol. 301. 8 August 2003, pg. 746.

For more on this situation, and about the carboniferous era, see:

Mining and reclamation

Bureau of Land Management image