Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South's Greatest Environmental Disasters

By Duncan Maysilles | Go to book overview

EPILOGUE THE VIEW FROM THE MOUNTAIN

In 1860 Hardin Taliaferro stood on a mountaintop and saw the clouds of heavy black smoke rising from the heaps of roasting ores. With the eyes of a prose stylist, he described them as “huge columns of smoke ascending towards heaven, spreading out at top like vast sheaves” that combined to cover “the heavens with a smoky pall.” Haifa century later in 1915, Dr. John T. McGill stood on a mountaintop to observe smelter smoke at the request of the United States Supreme Court. By then, the smoke McGill saw no longer rose in sheaves from the roast heaps but instead pulsed from smokestacks as the dampers were “raised or lowered to regulate the amount needed for the sulfuric acid factory.” In another eighty-five years, the sulfur smoke would be gone. No smoke rises from the dormant Tennessee Copper Company complex at Copperhill or from the abandoned ruins of the Ducktown Sulphur, Copper & Iron Company at Isabella. To the extent that there is air pollution in the basin, it is likely fumes from distant coal-fired power plants or automobile exhaust from Atlanta and other major cities.1

The local copper industry is gone, but the case it spawned remains potent as a legal precedent. Georgia v. Tennessee Copper Co. arose from the physical and political geography of the Ducktown Basin and then became a template for smelter litigation across the country. Its application then extended beyond the mining industry to serve as a vehicle for addressing other forms of transborder pollution. Finally, in 2007, the Supreme Court returned to its century-old decision in the copper case to serve as a crucial jurisdictional precedent for a landmark ruling on anthropogenic global warming.

Theodore Roosevelt and members of his administration grasped the significance of the 1907 victory achieved in the Georgia case by Attorney General John C. Hart and Ligon Johnson, his special counsel. Charles Bonaparte, Roosevelt’s attorney general and Napoleon’s grandnephew, hired Ligon Johnson to serve in a similar capacity on behalf of the federal government against other smelter companies for damage caused to national forests in the West. Johnson rescued the government’s losing cause against Mountain Copper. He then pursued new actions in Montana against the Anaconda and Washoe smelters, and in northern California against Mammoth Copper, Balaklala Copper, Bully Hill Copper, and Engels Copper.2

In each case, Johnson demonstrated the same mastery of scientific evi-

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