Rocky Topless 

Legislature refuses to stop coal companies from blowing up our mountains

With a coal company essentially promising to mine by blowing off the tops of Tennessee mountains, lawmakers inexplicably refused to act and all but guaranteed great swaths of ecologically important woodlands will be laid to waste.
Give state legislators credit. They’re about to go home for the year without rolling back ethics laws, legalizing handguns in saloons or giving nursing homes virtual carte blanche to neglect patients—all of which seemed like viable threats at one time or another during this session. Also, miraculously it seems, no lawmaker has been videotaped driving blind drunk, falling off a bar stool or accepting envelopes stuffed with cash. For this, we can be grateful, but not for something else the legislature didn’t do.

With a coal company essentially promising to mine by blowing off the tops of Tennessee mountains, lawmakers inexplicably refused to act and all but guaranteed great swaths of ecologically important woodlands will be laid to waste.

The National Coal Corp. threatened to shut down in Tennessee if mountaintop mining were banned. So to save 234 jobs, the sum total of the company’s workforce, lawmakers decided to sacrifice the natural beauty that underpins a gazillion-dollar tourism industry.

It’s all the more baffling because the legislature, at the urging of Gov. Phil Bredesen, has invested more than $100 million to acquire and protect the land that’s now in the coal company’s crosshairs. It’s mostly in the 74,000-acre Sundquist Wildlife Management Area in the northern Cumberland Plateau. The state bought surface and timber rights, but mineral rights belong to National Coal.

Bredesen himself admitted he was only vaguely aware of the bill to stop mountaintop mining—and that was after proponents gave hours of alarming presentations to House and Senate committees. Although he agreed it’s probably not a good idea to decapitate mountains to mine coal, he did nothing to help the legislation.

Exasperated environmentalists—innocently unaware that logic, even the unassailable variety, isn’t necessarily persuasive in the legislature—are in a state of disbelief that the bill could actually be dead.

“We’re talking about saving Rocky Top. That’s us. That’s our heritage,” says Dawn Coppock, the self-described “church lady” who took the lead in lobbying for the bill for an alliance of environmentalists and religious groups. “We’re not anti-coal mining. We’re just anti-blowing the tops off mountains.”

The whole legislature never even got the chance to vote. Five rural lawmakers, who couldn’t possibly care less about protecting the environment, killed the bill. They argued the coal company’s property rights trumped the public interest in preventing ecological catastrophes. In another unexplainable aspect of this story, these legislators outnumber everyone else on the inaptly named House Environment Subcommittee to which the bill was sent.

The legislation sailed through a Senate committee, giving advocates hope for an 11th-hour reconsideration in the House. But the House subcommittee chair, Nashville Democrat Brenda Gilmore, tells the Scene, “That bill’s dead in the water.”

Gilmore, who’s on the environmentalists’ side, says she couldn’t overcome opposition from the hayseeds who dominate her subcommittee. Of them, she says, “I wouldn’t say they hate the environment, but this has been a challenging session.”

This ruthless method of mining has ravaged much of Appalachia. Coal companies chop down the trees, scrape up the topsoil, then stuff fertilizer and fuel oil—the ingredients of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing—into drill holes and blast up to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains.

The resulting tons of rubble are dumped into hollows and creeks or just piled back up on top of the mountains once the coal is extracted. So-called reclamation amounts to grading and compacting the land and spreading a little topsoil and grass. That hasn’t worked very well. Polluted water supplies, landslides and floods threaten communities in the valleys below. By some estimates, rock and dirt have buried 1,200 miles of streams, and hundreds of square miles of forests have been spoiled.

“If there are multiple seams of coal high in the mountain, the economy of scale says the way to make the most profit is just to take off the whole mountaintop and then move all the rubble the shortest possible distance,” says Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association’s Southeast regional office in Knoxville.

West Virginia and Kentucky have been most afflicted. Here, the worst example so far is the eyesore that once was Zeb Mountain on the Cumberland Plateau’s eastern edge—“the poster child for ugly mountains in Tennessee,” as Coppock puts it.

At a hearing on the bill, senators questioned National Coal president Dan Roling about his company’s extensive history of environmental violations. “In three years’ time, there’s page after page of violations,” said Sen. Raymond Finney, a Maryville Republican.

Roling compared the violations with “speeding tickets” and blamed over-regulation of his industry. “As far as landslides, it happens,” he said matter-of-factly.

“We will be forced to close” if mountaintop removal mining is outlawed, Roling told the senators. “I thought Tennessee was business-friendly. I thought the country needed industry. We will have to wind down our operations here, and that’s not saber rattling, that is the economic truth.”

That brought outrage from Sen. Doug Jackson, a Dickson Democrat. “What this company wants to do is come in here with the most horrific method of mining that’s known in the industry,” he said. “Are we prepared—for a handful of jobs—to allow them to come in and blast away the tops of our mountains? God made those mountains, and it took millions of years. When it’s blown away, they’ll spread some topsoil over it and they’ll plant a few seeds, but it’s not ever the way that it was.”

Environmentalists say they’ll present their bill again next year, and the governor has indicated he might help this time. There’s a sense of urgency. Mountaintop mining is about to become more familiar to Tennessee. National Coal sold its operations in Kentucky this year to focus on mining in this state. The Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal-fired power plants are about to be fitted with newer pollution scrubbers, making this state’s high-sulfur, dirty-burning coal more marketable, according to Barger.

“That’s why we wanted to pass this legislation now,” he says. “We wanted to send the message that Tennessee is going to protect its mountains and its streams. We’re not going to let coal companies maximize profit at the expense of our mountains.”

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