The Enforcer: Cracking down on mining outlaws

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STOW, Ohio – Pressure can turn coal into diamonds – but it can also crush it to dust.

The coal mining industry also knew how to apply pressure and crush its opposition.

Lawmakers felt it. Those who signed even a modest reclamation law against the powerful mining lobby were signing a political death warrant in the next election.

Early chiefs of the Ohio Division of Reclamation felt it. One had a heart attack, one had a nervous breakdown and another packed up his stuff and quit.

Charles Call felt the pressure, too, when he accepted the position as chief in 1976. The series of 1970s reclamation laws, which required coal companies to return coal mines to productive land, was up to him to enforce.

Although his predecessors were crushed and he was up against a powerful industry, the pressure made Call shine.

The beginning. Call, now 81, was born, raised and still lives in Stow, Ohio, where his ancestors put down their roots in 1803.

Growing up, Call never liked school. He graduated from Stow High School in 1939, but would rather play left field on the school’s baseball team than sit down and read a novel for class.

“I never cracked a book, but still graduated in the top third of my class,” he said.

Following his father’s encouragement, Call enrolled at Ohio State University, but the confinement, routine and boredom took its toll on the young country boy and his career as a Buckeye lasted six weeks before he returned home to work on his dad’s Summit County dairy farm.

Farm life. From there, Call married Jean Point in 1944 and operated a dairy farm and produced timber, maple syrup, eggs and sold hybrid seed corn while being active in a long list of agricultural groups.

Things were going well for Call until tragedy struck in the mid-1970s.

Adding salt to the financial wound Call felt during a poor dairy market, an arsonist set his barns ablaze.

New start. After losing his dairy business, Call raised wheat and straw while continuing to drive to Columbus two or three times a month for various meetings.

He had known Robert Teater, the associate dean of the College of Agriculture at Ohio State University for five years prior to the fire. A member of several agricultural groups, Call frequently met with him about, among other things, the college’s various statewide programs.

During meetings, Call was impressed by Teater’s straightforward, no-nonsense demeanor, similar to his own.

“He was a dynamo,” Call said. “When he talked, you listened.”

The call. One afternoon in 1975, the phone rang. It was Teater, who was now the director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources.

“Charles, I got a job here. It’s the hottest job I’ve got. No matter what you do, someone is going to yell at you,” Teater said.

“Why do you want me?” Call answered.

“I hear you are a stubborn son of a *****,” Teater said.

Call laughed.

“Nah, I think I’m a nice guy,” he said.

“I need someone who is honest,” Teater said.

“Well, what’s the job?” Call asked.

“I need a chief of the Division of Reclamation,” Teater said.

Call had never worked for anyone before and he didn’t have a lot of respect for government. He met with Teater and read a copy of the laws he would be enforcing.

“I got cold feet,” Call said.

Strict law. The 1972 Ohio Strip Mine Law, a landmark law brought about because of inadequate reclamation in mining’s early years, was the strictest coal mining law in the country. It would later serve as a model for the 1977 federal law. When it was passed, Ohio coal companies said it would put them out of business.

The law and the revisions that followed set the standards Ohio coal companies had to meet when turning former coal mines into productive areas again.

Reclamation attempts in previous decades had failed. Not all coal companies had cooperated.

Good timing. Unlike the former chiefs, Call had two things in his favor: The 1974 energy crunch made the price of coal skyrocket so operators could no longer say they didn’t have the money to reclaim the land, and the decade’s environmental movements were influencing public perception of coal mining, putting the pressure on the coal companies to restore the land.

New job. Call was named chief in June of 1976. The hours were long, sometimes starting at 7 a.m. and continuing until the middle of the night. Call was in charge of regulating 1,000 coal companies in 26 Ohio counties, stretching from the Portage County area to the Ohio River. He took a helicopter to eight offices throughout the state from his home office in Columbus.

Call wasn’t concerned about salary. He didn’t even know what the job paid when he accepted it.

His biggest concern, Call said, was the political powers of the coal industry.

Wake-up call. A few weeks after accepting the job, he was just about out the door of Teater’s office when he expressed his concern.

“Dr. Teater,” Call told his new boss, “if I ever get a phone call telling me to take it easy on a guy, I’ll hang up and walk right out the door.”

Upset that Call would ever walk out on him, the blood climbed up Teater’s neck and filled his face with red, Call said.

“You listen to me,” Teater said, and Call recalls Teater’s hand gripping his shirt. “You will enforce the law fairly and firmly and I’ll handle the politics.”

Call got the message loud and clear. Fairly and firmly. It didn’t matter if the coal company was big or small or how many legislators it had in its pocket.

A test. Small coal companies thought the chief was on the payroll of the big companies and that he would cut them favors.

Call proved them wrong.

One of Call’s survey teams found a huge Athens County coal mining company had plugged a creek that flooded a farmer’s field.

The owner told the survey team they didn’t have a right to be there and blocked the exits with his truck before calling to have them arrested.

When the sheriff arrived, the team’s supervisor showed him the statute that said they were not trespassing.

As opposed to slapping handcuffs on the well-known, well-liked and prominent coal company owner who did tremendous amounts of philanthropy for Athens County, the sheriff asked him to drive down to the station on his own.

The owner obeyed and paid a small fine for the violation.

While the fine was small, its effect was not. Small coal companies, along with everyone else, was watching to see if Call could be pushed around.

“If I would have given in there,” Call said, “my credibility would have gone to hell.”

Media attack. In response to the arrest, the Athens Messenger published a “scathing editorial” about how Call could persecute someone who had contributed so much to Athens County.

The editorial came after years of condemning Call for his lack of passion and energy.

Call phoned the newspaper editor and thanked him for the most recent editorial, telling the editor that he just gave him credibility.

“(The editor) said for years that I wasn’t doing anything,” Call said. “Then he got mad when I did something.”

More trouble. Battles with coal companies and newspapers were not the only problems he faced.

Call’s staff was loaded with “recent college graduates who had a save-the-world mentality.” Many had strong pro-environment ideologies and hated the coal companies.

Call had to show them that it is not necessary to pit the environment against big business, but it is necessary to create a balance between the two.

No secrets. Inspections were not clandestine operations, each employee was instructed to tell the first person they saw at the mining site who they were and what they were doing.

Call only had to fire five people during his career. He led with a firm voice and brutal honesty.

“I told (my staff), ‘You never ran a business or paid a payroll,'” Call said. “‘You may hate them, but you won’t insult them.'”

He didn’t tolerate misbehavior from his staff or the coal companies. Any time a coal company complained about his inspectors, Call stood by his employees.

“I told them if (my employees) are wrong, I’ll take care of it,” he said. “But if they are right, then you do it.”

Experience. Each day came with a new twist and Call dealt with many during his eight-year tenure as chief.

He put up with frequent letters from coal companies to the late Gov. James Rhodes declaring Call a environmental zealot, hoping to get him fired.

“The more people they could move in and out of the office, the more games they could play.” Call said.

And there were the occasional frustrated foremen who warned Call to “check under your hood before you start your car.”

Employee in danger. There was also the time when one of his inspectors sped away from a coal site while watching a St. Clairsville coal miner, waving a shotgun, in his rearview mirror. Call moved the inspector to a different district in a different truck.

Call kept up his no-nonsense attitude right up until the end.

After Richard Celeste won the gubernatorial election in 1983, Myrl Shoemaker, lieutenant governor and new director of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, sent Call a letter stating that Call should take no administrative action against coal companies without contacting Shoemaker’s office first.

Call answered the letter by scribbling “NO WAY!” in big, black letters across the top of the page and mailed it back to Shoemaker.

“I never heard back from them,” he said.

Not quitting. The change of administrations brings new appointed administrators. It was standard for the members of the old administration to turn in their resignations, but Call had different ideas.

After several phone calls from the Celeste administration begging him to resign, Call still refused.

“I didn’t want those kids (his employees) to feel like I walked out on them,” he said. Finally, Call was fired in March 1983.

Despite the long hours and stress, Call said watching the mines being transformed into beautiful land was “just too rewarding.”

“It was the type of job that gripped you and pulled you in,” he said. “Had I known what I was getting into, I would have done it for nothing.”

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