- Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South’s Greatest Environmental Disasters
Ducktown Smoke begins by noting that turn-of-the-century copper entrepreneurs were able to accomplish a remarkable feat–to turn an area that receives sixty inches of rainfall annually into a desert. Dealing with the consequences of an Appalachian desert required nearly two decades of litigation involving hundreds of lawsuits (which ultimately resulted in a landmark ruling) and another four generations of reclamation to get rid of the “old red scar” that spread from southeastern Tennessee into Georgia and North Carolina. Duncan Maysilles’s first-rate legal history of this important environmental disaster should serve as a cautionary tale for current advocates of mountaintop removal mining and Marcellus Shale fracking, but it hardly gives environmental activists a rosy picture of what they might be facing in the future.
Borders and competing claims for sovereignty played a large role in the Ducktown drama. Situated in what was a remote corner of the Cherokee nation in the early nineteenth century, the small population residing in the Ducktown Basin could not avoid the tug-of-war between Georgia and the federal government once the North Georgia gold rush commenced in 1828. Removal of the Cherokee also erased local knowledge of the rich copper deposits in the basin, delaying development of the industry for a generation. By the 1850s, however, skilled copper miners from Cornwall and local colliers began to slowly transform the region, retarded once again by borders and sovereignty—this time involving the development of transportation and then a civil war. Not until the railroad reached Ducktown in 1890 were all the elements in place to trigger the long battle over sovereignty and environmental regulation that would make the Ducktown Basin so infamous and important.
Although the scale of copper mining and smelting entered a new phase at the end of the nineteenth century, the environmental toll the industry would take was evident much earlier. To create fuel for the smelting process, smelters relied on charcoal produced from local forests at an annual [End Page 90] rate of about seventy-five acres per year for each furnace. When multiplied by the number of furnaces and the need for local timber to build houses and firewood, the impact was huge. Complicating this was the fact that clear-cutting sections of the forest exposed topsoil to the devastating effects of heavy rainfall. Once truly corporate-scale mining and smelting began after 1890, it did not take long to turn the once resource-rich basin into a desert, particularly since the sulfuric smoke from the furnaces stripped the bark and leaves from the remaining trees. Thus, the long-awaited industrial development of the region, which promised to provide markets for local farmers, instead destroyed their produce and left the farmers looking to government for a solution.
Once again, borders intruded into the lives of those around Ducktown. The Populist movement in northern Georgia and western North Carolina united farmers against the corporate intruders who threatened their livelihoods, but they were powerless to impose regulations on companies that were operating in Tennessee. Only the courts could settle these disputes, but where could plaintiffs go to redress their grievances? Local courts in Georgia had no authority in Tennessee, where the courts wanted to support the industrial development that fed their citizens. Moreover, Tennessee courts had no provision for class-action suits, meaning that hundreds of individual suits needed to be filed. Finally, there were no clear precedents for one state (in this case Georgia) to file a federal suit on behalf of its citizens against another state (Tennessee) and corporations operating there to prevent pollution. Indeed, Georgia’s attorney general was crafting new legal maneuvers that would change environmental law. Ultimately, Georgia “successfully extended the nuisance law to establish a state’s sovereign right for injunctive remedy against interstate pollution” (221).
Maysilles does a wonderful job of untangling the complexities involved and highlighting the important new precedents. However, the outcome hardly...