Watson v. Kenlick Coal Company, Inc, No. 74-294

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtDOUGLAS
Citation422 U.S. 1012,45 L.Ed.2d 677,95 S.Ct. 2639
PartiesMitchell WATSON et al. v. KENLICK COAL COMPANY, INC., et al
Docket NumberNo. 74-294
Decision Date16 June 1975

422 U.S. 1012
95 S.Ct. 2639
45 L.Ed.2d 677
Mitchell WATSON et al.

v.

KENLICK COAL COMPANY, INC., et al.

No. 74-294.

Supreme Court of the United States

June 16, 1975

On petition for writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit.

The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.

Mr. Justice DOUGLAS, dissenting.

Petitioners are landowners in Magoffin County, Kentucky. Seventy years ago, their predecessors in ownership deeded away all rights to the minerals in and under their land, retaining only the surface rights; respondents are the present holders of the mineral rights, and have strip mined much of the coal which underlies the land. Petitioners brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, seeking injunctive relief.1 and damages for the destruction of the land surface through respondents' strip-

Page 1013

mining operations. The Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the complaint, holding that there was no state action involved and that petitioners had not been deprived of any federal constitutional right. 498 F.2d 1183 (CA6 (1974).

This case is unfortunately no more than a mere footnote in a continuing tragedy of environmental and human despoliation. The rape of Appalachia for its precious coal has been a dark and dismal chapter in our Nation's history, moving one observer to lament:

'Coal has always cursed the land in which it lies. When men begin to wrest it from the earth it leaves a legacy of four streams, hideous slag heaps and polluted air. It peoples this transformed land with blind and crippled men and with widows and orphans. It is an extractive industry which takes all alway and restores nothing. It mars but never beautifies. It corrupts but never purifies.'2

One of the hardest-hit areas has been the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Kentucky. In the late 19th century, the hill country was swept by a virtual wave of coal buyers seeking to acquire precious mineral rights from the often naive and illiterate mountaineers. The contest was hardly an equal one,3 and most coal buyers

Page 1014

escaped with a stack of 'broad-form' deeds which left nominal title to the land surface in the landowner, but which conveyed to the grantee the right to excavate and remove all minerals and, in the course of such removal, to divert and pollute the water and to dump mining refuse on the surface. Against the backdrop of then-current mining technology, the prospects and hazards of such actions must have seemed remote and insignificant.4

Page 1015

With the advance of technology, however, the stakes increased; each successive innovation was visited upon the mountaineers with the approval of the courts, which found these new and unforeseen techniques to fall within the scope of the aged and yellowing deeds. Judicial decisions gave virtually untrammeled powers to the coal companies, so long as they acted without malice:

'With impunity [the companies] could kill the fish in the treams, render the water in the farmer's well unpotable and, by corrupting the stream from which his livestock drank, compel him to get rid of his milk cows and other beasts. They were authorized to pile mining refuse wherever they desired, even if the chosen sites destroyed the homes of farmers and bestowed no substantial advantage on the corporations. The companies which held 'longform' mineral deeds were empowered to withdraw subjacent supports, thereby causing the surface to subside and fracture. They could build roads wherever they desired, even through lawns and fertile vegetable gardens. They could sluice poisonous water from the pits onto crop lands. With im-

Page 1016

punity they could hurl out from their washeries clouds of coal grit which settled on fields of corn, alfalfa and clover and rendered them worthless as fodder. Fumes from burning slate dumps peeled paint from houses, but the companies were absolved from damages.

'. . . The companies, which had bought their coal rights at prices ranging from fifty cents to a few dollars per acre, were, in effect, left free to do as they saw fit, restrained only by the shallow consciences of their officials.'5

The final blow in the expansion of the coal companies' rights under broad-form deeds was struck when the Kentucky Court of Appeals, in Buchanan v. Watson, 290 S.W.2d 40 (Ky.1956), held that the broad-form deed conveys the right to strip mine and that the mining company, in the absence of arbitrary, wanton, or malicious destruction, incurs no liability to the surface owner for destruction of the surface during the strip mining process. The Kentucky court has adhered to that holding through an unbroken string of decisions culminating in Martin v. Kentucky Oak Mining Co., 429 S.W.2d 395 (Ky.1968), where the court reaffirmed Buchanan over the vigorous dissent of two of its members.6 While the Kentucky General Assembly has finally provided legislative relief for the victims of strip mining,7 that

Page 1017

relief is prospective only and will not bring about the repair or reclamation of already ravaged lands.

In my view, the courts below took an unjustifiably narrow approach to the state action issue presented by this lawsuit. It is undisputed that Kentucky imposes extensive regulatory controls upon strip miners, including a permit requirement and a requirement that plans meeting minimum legal standards be submitted.8 This regulatory involvement alone might not be sufficient to warrant a finding of state action, but it is coupled with a long and unbroken line of state court decisions...

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21 practice notes
  • Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Walman
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • June 9, 1977
    ...is characterized by dishonesty, fraud or deceit, accord, Maryland St. Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 377, 335 A.2d 108, cert. denied, 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975); Bar Ass'n of Balto. City v. Snyder, 273 Md. 534, 536, 331 A.2d 47 (1975); Maryland St. Bar Ass'n v. C......
  • Attorney Grievance v. Shaw, Misc. AG No. 75
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • July 9, 1999
    ...funds of the Mount St. Joseph Father's Club); Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 335 A.2d 108 (1975) cert. denied 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975) (bribery); Agnew, 271 Md. at 551, 318 A.2d at 815 (willfully evading payment of income taxes); Fellner v. Bar. ......
  • Attorney Grievance v. Childress, Misc. AG No. 22
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • April 19, 2001
    ...or embezzling funds of a "Fathers Club." In Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 335 A.2d 108 (1975), cert. denied, 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975), we disbarred an attorney for bribery. In Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Agnew, 271 Md. 543, 318 A.2d 811 (1974), ......
  • Attorney Grievance Commission v. Sheinbein, Misc. AG No. 37
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • December 16, 2002
    ...have also disbarred attorneys for various crimes. See Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 335 A.2d 108 (1975), cert. denied, 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975) (disbarring attorney for bribery); Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Agnew, 271 Md. 543, 318 A.2d 811 (1974......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
21 cases
  • Attorney Grievance Commission of Maryland v. Walman
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • June 9, 1977
    ...is characterized by dishonesty, fraud or deceit, accord, Maryland St. Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 377, 335 A.2d 108, cert. denied, 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975); Bar Ass'n of Balto. City v. Snyder, 273 Md. 534, 536, 331 A.2d 47 (1975); Maryland St. Bar Ass'n v. C......
  • Attorney Grievance v. Shaw, Misc. AG No. 75
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • July 9, 1999
    ...funds of the Mount St. Joseph Father's Club); Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 335 A.2d 108 (1975) cert. denied 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975) (bribery); Agnew, 271 Md. at 551, 318 A.2d at 815 (willfully evading payment of income taxes); Fellner v. Bar. ......
  • Attorney Grievance v. Childress, Misc. AG No. 22
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • April 19, 2001
    ...or embezzling funds of a "Fathers Club." In Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 335 A.2d 108 (1975), cert. denied, 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975), we disbarred an attorney for bribery. In Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Agnew, 271 Md. 543, 318 A.2d 811 (1974), ......
  • Attorney Grievance Commission v. Sheinbein, Misc. AG No. 37
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Maryland
    • December 16, 2002
    ...have also disbarred attorneys for various crimes. See Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Hirsch, 274 Md. 368, 335 A.2d 108 (1975), cert. denied, 422 U.S. 1012, 95 S.Ct. 2638, 45 L.Ed.2d 676 (1975) (disbarring attorney for bribery); Maryland State Bar Ass'n v. Agnew, 271 Md. 543, 318 A.2d 811 (1974......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

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