Front Porch Blog

The Inspectors from Hell

This is a story about an amazing man named Bill Hayes, zealous inspectors for the Office of Surface Mining (A.K.A. – heroes), and the first cessation ever given by the OSM.

Patrick N. Angel, longtime strip mine regulator and now federal Office of Surface Mining forester in the London, Ky., office, told this story at last weekend’s memorial service for legendary mine inspector William Hayes.

It was the morning of May 25, 1978 — 6:00 a.m.

Lying in bed, I wondered how much longer it would be before Bill Hayes knocked on the door of my motel room, as he had each morning for the past two weeks. We had been working as a two-man inspection team, crisscrossing the Eastern Kentucky coalfields, trying to be everwhere at once.

Our strategy was to make it appear there were more OSM inspectors than the five we had in the state at the time. We were on a true blitzkrieg. Some operators called us zealots, and a few labeled us storm troopers, but we were mostly known as “the inspectors from hell.”

Compare this to the modern OSM, which ignores orders from the highest elected officials in the region – in this case Governor Phil Bredesen of Tennessee

From the noise outside and the leak in the ceiling of my room, I could
tell that it was raining. I just knew that Bill was going to give me his
“official wake-up knock” at any moment. Finally it came.

“Let’s go, Angel! It’s a long way to Harlan!”

Yesterday morning he had said, “It’s a long way to Hazard!” and the
morning before it was, “It’s a long way to Hindman!” I was beginning to
believe that Eastern Kentucky was the size of Texas and Alaska combined.

As a feeble protest, I muttered through the door, “It’s raining, Bill.”

“Yep,” he replied in his eternally optimistic way. “But, you know what
they say — if it starts to rain before 7, it will stop before 11.” Well
then, I thought,invoking half-asleep logic, in that case it’s okay for
me to get up. After all, this was Bill Hayes.

Bill was our mentor, our guiding light. He was considered “king” of
strip mine enforcement in Kentucky. Anything he said was correct. If he
said it was going to rain French fries for the rest of the day, then by
golly you’d better bring ketchup.

By 8 a.m. we were well on our way to Harlan County in our leased
metallic-green Blazer, which looked like a big wet June bug. It was
raining so hard the wipers couldn’t keep up. Through the downpour, we
had to find a pay phone so we could make our daily call to the newly
formed Office of Surface Mining headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Each morning, we had to check in with Dick Hall, the number two man
after Walter Heine for inspection and enforcement. Dick called the shots
for most of the field operations. His first decision, after we completed
our training at Madisonville, was to ask that all field people refrain
from issuing cessation orders (COs).

But get this: We were to act, in front of the coal operators during our
inspections, as though we could issue a CO.

Shutting down our first operator, regardless of the seriousness of the
problem, had to be delayed because of a legal challenge facing the
agency. Maintaining our delaying tactic was becoming increasing
difficult as we got deeper and deeper into the coalfields. We knew that
sooner or later one of us would have to do the dirty deed.

On that particular rainy morning, we drove into a service station where
Bill called Dick Hall and was told to investigate a citizen’s complaint
in the Harlan area. “We’re to find a woman by the name of Hazel King,”
Bill said.

Now that was a name I would hear 10,000 times again over the next 24
years. Little did I know at the time that Hazel was embarking on a very
illustrious career as OSM’s most famous and frequent citizen complainant.

As we wove our way deeper into the mountains, I noticed that, although
the rain was slacking off some, the clouds hung down below the
mountaintops — a bad sign.

I looked at Bill. “Hey,” I said, “I thought you said it was going to
stop raining.” He grinned and answered, “It’s not 11 yet.” Bill was
never known to be wrong.

Hazel was waiting for us at the opposite end of her swinging bridge
across sediment-filled Clover Fork. She was attired in rain gear. She
was prepared to accompany us, as the new law allowed, on our inspection
of a contour mining operation on an extremely steep slope about five
miles upstream from her lovely mountain home.

The access road to the mine was undoubtedly the worst I had ever seen.
There were no culverts, no drainage controls and no durable surface. The
road was rutted by heavy coal truck traffic, and water cascaded down the
ruts. The wheels on our “June bug” were spinning like crazy, and it
began to look as if we weren’t going to make it up to the bench.

Bill’s teeth were tightly clenched as he ticked off one violation after
another. “You can tell how good or bad a job is going to be by the way
the access road is maintained,” he said. Bill was never known to be wrong.

When we reached the bench it looked like the aftermath of Hiroshima.
Spoil was piled up helter-skelter. Massive broken highwalls loomed
above. Deep pits of acid water littered the landscape like pockmarks.
And the rain only made it worse. This was truly a “push-and-shove
operation” of the kind seen before passage of the federal strip mine
control act.

We immediately spotted three active and separate pits of coal where
dozers, trucks and loaders were doing a complicated dance of extraction.
On top of a pyramid-shaped spoil pile, high above this three-ring
circus, stood the operator, choreographing the entire operation.

First he would point to the left, then to the right. Then he’d wave for
a coal truck to jockey into position. Then he’d signal for the front-end
loader to start loading. Suddenly he stopped, turned and saw “the
inspectors from hell.”

He walked over quickly to find out what we wanted. Bill and I hadn’t
been issued our official OSM credentials yet, so we showed a letter
signed by Walter Heine that said who we were and what our authority was.
Luckily, the operator didn’t challenge us, although he didn’t seem too
happy that Hazel King was with us.

In fact, despite a nervous twitch in one eye, the operator didn’t appear
to be quite the villain I expected. However, I noticed that as Bill
pressed him on a particular problem, the nervous twitch accelerated.

The line of Bill’s questions made it obvious that he was reading the
operator’s eye to locate the serious violations. I believe that’s how
Bill found the landslide so quickly. It was the mother of all slides, at
least 200 feet across and 800 feet down the slope, directly into Clover
Fork. It was one of those slides where you could actually see material
moving down the slope. What really bothered me was the amount of spoil
and rocks still to come. It was an impending disaster — a sedimentary
Sword of Damocles. Bill and I looked at each other. We both knew what
had to be done.

As we walked back to our vehicle, I said, “But Bill, they haven’t turned
us loose yet with cessation orders.” Bill paused for a moment, then
answered quietly, “Angel, we’re going to baptize this agency out there
on that slide whether it’s ready or not, and you’re going to be the

As Bill uttered those words, I looked up at the sky. It had stopped
raining, and by golly it was 10:50 a.m. Bill Hayes was never known to be

With trembling hands, I flipped through all the forms and documents in
my brief case. Bill kept the operator and Hazel King some distance away
from where I was doing the paperwork. After about 15 minutes I walked up
to the operator and handed him the document titled “Order of Cessation.”
As he stared at it, the operator became motionless (twitch and all), and
his face turned crimson. A few minutes later, all of his heavy
equipment, trucks, dozers and loaders shut down simultaneously, leaving
a deep and foreboding silence. Somewhere off in the distance, a
white-throated sparrow whistled.

OSM had issued its first cessation order, and the coalfields would never
be the same.





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