The Return of King Coal 

Destructive mining on Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau makes a comeback

There are two ways to get coal out of the ground: tunnel it out like a mole, hoping the mine walls hold and the gases aren’t deadly, or blast the land open with explosives and dig the coal out of the open wound.
There are two ways to get coal out of the ground: tunnel it out like a mole, hoping the mine walls hold and the gases aren’t deadly, or blast the land open with explosives and dig the coal out of the open wound. On Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau, mining companies do both. Where the coal beds lie deep and thick, the miners burrow. Where the beds are thin, spread like icing between layers of steep mountain earth, they strip mine. On Zeb Mountain, in the chain of peaks that form the Plateau’s high eastern edge, National Coal Corp. strip mines. The rumble of heavy machinery, punctuated by the sound of rock being blasted into rubble, drifts down to a hum in Charles Blankenship’s backyard, less than half a mile away. Blankenship grew up on Zeb Mountain, where his family farmed and deep-mined coal on land it had owned since the 1800s. Though he left the Cumberlands at 18 and raised his family in Michigan, Blankenship returned. He bought back almost 200 acres that his family had sold off, built a house on it and retired there in 1993. Now he works to protect the mountain. “I don’t want to see Zeb Mountain torn up and destroyed, like it was before,” Blankenship says. “Most people my age or younger here, they don’t remember what happened when surface mining was here last time.” Blankenship is talking about the 1970s, when surface mining production in Tennessee peaked at almost 6 million tons a year. Standing in his backyard, he points to an oddly misshapen summit to the northeast, sculpted by a surface mine long since closed. To the northwest, he sees National Coal’s Mine No. 7, now working its way over the crest. Neighbors complain that blasting from the mine has damaged their homes, and Blankenship worries acidic runoff will pollute the creek he uses to water his small herd of cows. Blankenship is an active member of the grassroots organization Save Our Cumberland Mountains. He got involved more than 25 years ago, when someone claimed the mineral rights on land he was buying. As he prepared to go to court, SOCM (pronounced “sock ’em”) helped him find the property’s old deed. He has become an area watchdog, talking to neighbors about their rights, helping them get pre-blast surveys on their homes (which will serve as baselines should they claim any blasting damage) and filing complaints when he thinks mining regulations have been broken. “When I first got involved, everyone was against me, even my family, because mining has always been part of the community,” Blankenship says. “I know a few people at mines who feel frustrated with me. They think I’m trying to stop the mining. No one can stop the mines. But they need to do what they’re supposed to do. A mining permit is a contract.” The method used at Mine No. 7 goes roughly like this: cut down the trees, tear out the stumps and scrape up the topsoil, setting it aside for later. Blast to expose the coal seams and excavate the rubble. Use settling ponds to collect sediment and acid-contaminated drainage. Once the coal is out, fill one pit with debris from the next, working your way across the mountain. Grade the new surface into an approximation of the original landscape, compact it enough to keep it from sliding away and spread with the reserved topsoil. Seed with grasses, trees and shrubs. According to theory, this reclamation recipe will return the mountain to health. Unfortunately, land reclamation doesn’t always go that way. Industrial Fuels Inc. ran a strip mine on High Point Mountain, in the state-run Sundquist Wildlife Management Area. The federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM), which has regulated coal mining in Tennessee since 1984, deemed reclamation complete in 1993. Then, in mid-winter 2005, 23 acres of remodeled mountain gave way. Dirt and rock collapsed down the slope above Smoky Creek. Sediment continues to pollute the water there, which runs into the New River. The New River winds its way to the Big South Fork, which feeds the Cumberland River, which supplies Nashville’s water. In its report on the landslide, OSM admits that it failed to hold Industrial Fuels to regulatory standards. The agency also declares that there’s nothing it can do about it. To repair the damage done by the landslide on its property, Tennessee would have to come up with the money itself. If the outlook for mining in East Tennessee were grim, perhaps most observers would consider this landslide just another chore in cleaning up after history. Tennessee’s coal production peaked in 1972 at about 11 million tons. When prices stagnated in the 1980s, most of the state’s coal—trapped in thin seams on steep, treacherous slopes—wasn’t worth the cost of extraction. By 2000, Tennessee’s production had fallen to around 3 million tons a year. Despite nostalgia for mining within Appalachian mountain culture, coal’s legacy in Tennessee consists mostly of abandoned mines, polluted streams and distorted landscapes. Now, fanned by rising prices, Tennessee coal is getting its glow back. Last year, production rose 11.4 percent, and investment is increasing. In March, National Coal spent almost $2 million on 42 miles of railroad track to improve access to its New River Tract reserves in the Sundquist area. It plans to spend $5 million more to improve the tracks and related facilities. “We currently own the mineral rights on approximately 65,000 acres of the tract, including four permitted and five soon-to-be permitted mining sites,” a National Coal official said in a statement announcing the purchase. (The company’s Chicago-based spokeswoman says interviews couldn’t be arranged for this story. She insists National Coal does not mine on the Plateau, though company maps show it does.) “We are already seeing strong interest by new and existing customers from the Southeast who can count on us to provide a steady source of energy for many years,” the statement said. The three permits issued to National Coal within the past year have been for surface mines. National Coal, formed in 2003, is hardly the only coal company on the Plateau. Appolo Fuels and Mountainside Coal Co. each hold strip mining permits on thousands of acres. And they—along with several other companies—have more pending. In the meantime, the Tennessee Valley Authority, strapped for cash, is evaluating what to do with its mineral rights on 53,000 acres, most of them under the state-run Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. In a rural region still struggling to find its way economically, the industry’s renewal promises jobs and infusions of industry cash. For poor towns and unemployed laborers, it may seem an offer too good to refuse. In February, OSM invited the public to comment on proposed revisions to the Zeb Mountain mine permit. About 40 people showed up, and most of the speakers criticized the mine. Charles Blankenship’s cousin Billy Lewallen, who also lives within a mile of the mine, staked out a middle ground. “A lot of you know me,” Lewallen began. “I haven’t made any secret of the fact that I’m not too crazy about the mountain being tore up. But, at the same time, I’ve got to be realistic. The jobs around here are needed. The jobs up there are good-paying jobs, and good-paying jobs around here are few and far between. I guess what I’m trying to say is, fix the existing problems, obey the law and respect the property rights of the people. If all those conditions are met, I can live with it. I may not like it, but I can live with it.” A handful of mine employees attended the hearing, too. They sat in a cluster and were wary of questions about their work. Only one addressed the hearing. He looked to be at least in his late 60s. “I take care of the reclaiming, the water control, getting it all in the right place where it should go,” Clifton Ward told the group. “And I’m proud of what they’re doing, proud of it, and I want you people to know that. There’s not a stream coming out that strip head, nowhere out of a pond, I would be afraid to lay down and drink a cup of water.” The environmentalists in the audience, including members of the Sierra Club, TN Clean Water Network and SOCM clucked in disbelief, but Warden’s face remained utterly sincere, as if he really would drink from the mine’s settling pond if that would guarantee his job. Mining’s critics don’t share Ward’s taste in drink. The Plateau is home to some of the richest ecological diversity in the United States. For many environmentalists and community activists, coal mining—specifically strip mining—is a Faustian bargain that will ravage what they love in return for short-term economic gain. These forces have mobilized to outflank the mining industry, without great success. In the past year, OSM has rejected two requests for environmental reviews. The first, from the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) and a local chapter of the National Audubon Society, asked the federal government to assess mining’s impact on 284,000 Plateau acres, including the New River watershed and areas considered important habitat for cerulean warblers, migrating songbirds that environmentalists have sought to protect under the federal Endangered Species Act. If successful, the petition could have limited future strip mining in the area. In the meantime, the review process would have put new permit requests on hold. “Look at West Virginia and Kentucky to see what’s coming down the mountains toward Tennessee,” says Don Barger, NPCA’s Southeast regional director. “Thirty years down the road, even if everything is done according to law, these waters are hammered. All surface mining has allowable amounts of pollution. Looking at individual points, permit by permit, doesn’t show illegal damage. Without looking at it cumulatively, you can’t measure impact.” Barger is referring to the fact that all federal mining permits require water permits from the state. The water permits, however, do not address how legal amounts of pollution in smaller streams may combine to affect the larger waterways that absorb them. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” Barger says, adding that his organization plans on resubmitting its petition. “I have streams that need a skull and crossbones on them. They have pH levels so low they’re practically battery acid,” Stan Stooksbury says, bustling around an office strewn with maps and paperwork. Stooksbury manages the state’s Sundquist, Royal Blue and Cove Creek wildlife areas, a total of about 125,000 acres. He spends much of his time monitoring not only the wildlife, but also the various timber, coal, oil and gas operations on the state’s land. According to Stooksbury, these highly polluted streams are victims of mines in operation before the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977. One potential upside to renewed mining in the area, Stooksbury says, is that if some of these old sites are remined, the companies will have to reclaim them to current environmental standards. That would include restoring these streams. “We can take a small stream and $100,000, and we can fix it,” he explains. But there is not enough public money to undertake large projects, such as Straight Fork Creek, which would cost millions to restore. “Straight Fork Creek is dead from the Royal Blue to the New River, which can currently dilute it.” Stooksbury takes a practical approach to mining. His job requires it. “Mining’s legal. We can’t oppose legal activity. But strip mining would significantly hurt,” he says. “There are so many species that live on this Cumberland mountain region. It’s so rich. Some species are in need of management, all the way to threatened or endangered.” The same week the federal government rejected the petition by the NPCA and the Audubon Society, the state made its own request. In a flurry of letters from Gov. Phil Bredesen, the Department of Environment and Conservation, and the Wildlife Resources Agency, Tennessee asked OSM to produce an environmental impact statement for the entire state. This would have created a legally binding guide for coal policy, including permit approvals. In rejecting this request, OSM’s interim director, Brent Wahlquist, suggested that if Bredesen did not like the job the federal government was doing, then maybe it was time for Tennessee to regulate mining for itself. “We believe strongly that the most effective way to achieve the goals outlined in your letters would be for Tennessee to resume state regulatory authority,” Wahlquist wrote. “Of the 25 coal-producing states, Tennessee is one of only two that do not have primacy. By implementing a state program, the citizens and government of Tennessee could directly address the concerns raised in your letter….” On May 8, Bredesen sent another letter to Wahlquist asking him to reconsider the state’s request. In the meantime, local residents grapple with the issue—and each other—on their own. Ann League, a SOCM member who lives in a neighborhood adjacent to Royal Blue, couldn’t make the public hearing on the Zeb Mountain permit. She was at work at a gas station off I-75. She prefers not to talk about mining at work. At a booth in Shoney’s, she explains why. “At work once, I had a driver who works for the mining company, who knew I was with SOCM, actually ask me where I lived. He asked me, ‘Why in the world would you want to be one of them?’ We parted on OK terms. His wife works at the fudge shop next door. She came in one day and gave me hell about SOCM. She said that we were trying to take food out of her babies’ mouths,” League says. “I’m not trying to take their jobs away. I just love this area. I love these mountains. And I hate to see them destroyed.” “At work once, I had a driver who works for the mining company, who knew I was with SOCM, actually ask me where I lived. He asked me, ‘Why in the world would you want to be one of them?’ We parted on OK terms. His wife works at the fudge shop next door. She came in one day and gave me hell about SOCM. She said that we were trying to take food out of her babies’ mouths,” League says. “I’m not trying to take their jobs away. I just love this area. I love these mountains. And I hate to see them destroyed.”

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