Conservative Group Backs Effort to Ban Mountaintop Mining

Legislation to protect Tennessee’s mountains has new, if somewhat unexpected, support: the Tennessee Conservative Union.

Citing the involvement of the “Red Chinese” in mountaintop removal mining, the conservative organization has launched a statewide media effort to ban the harvesting of coal by blowing the tops off Tennessee’s mountains.

“Tennessee has become the first state in our great nation to permit the Red Chinese to destroy our mountains and take our coal,” a gravelly, male voice warns in the ad released by the TCU, alluding to a Chinese company reportedly indicating an intention last year to invest in the Tennessee-based Triple H Coal Company.

According to the company’s website, Triple H is “one of the fastest growing coal mining operations in the Tennessee Coal Mining Reserve. We supply the increasing demand for clean coal energy to the U.S. domestic market as well as rapid expanding emerging markets such as China. Triple H’s Tennessee mines cover a surface area of over 30,000 mineral acres and consist of nine seams that are located throughout the Tennessee Coal Reserve.”

An email to the company asking for comment went unanswered.

The conservative Tennessee group joins environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club and Appalachian Voices in pushing back against mountaintop removal.

Appalachian Voices is eager to work with “anyone who supports protecting Tennessee’s mountains,” said JW Randolph, director of the Tennessee branch of the environmental group.

“From my perspective, we don’t care if they’re from China or Chattanooga – they can be from anywhere. Blowing up mountains is a bad idea,” Randolph said. “The fact that everybody from the most liberal and progressive people in the state support protecting our mountains, and the most conservative people in our state support protecting our mountains, I think, gives me a lot of hope.”

The “Scenic Vistas Protection Act,” HB43/SB99, sponsored by Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, and Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, would seek to prevent mountaintop removal operations by prohibiting the issuance of water quality control permits for certain projects. The bill would affect projects altering ridgelines at an elevation higher than 2,000 feet above sea level.

That’s on the low end of the height range for the Great Smoky Mountains, which range from 875 feet to 6,643 feet – the elevation of Clingmans Dome.

According to the bill, previously issued permits for mountaintop removal activities could only be renewed by the original applicant. The measure doesn’t expand or change the allowed surface area of mining operations or previously allowed actions and is not otherwise against the law. The bill also does not allow permits to be transferred from one person to another.

Although both the bill’s primary sponsors are Democrats, it appears to have at least some bipartisan support. Two Republicans in the House have signed on as co-prime sponsors: Bill Dunn, of Knoxville, who has been honored as the TCU Legislator of the Year, and Bob Ramsey of Maryville.

Gloria JohnsonGloria Johnson

“I think that the citizens – the majority of citizens of Tennessee – are supportive of that bill and don’t want to see any more mountaintop removal,” Johnson said.

During the 2012 legislative session the bill was sent to a summer study panel, where no action was taken on it.

The bill, important because of its intent to “preserve” one of the state’s “greatest assets,” has been heard before the state Legislature in various forms over the last three years, said sponsor Sen. Lowe Finney, of Jackson.

“What you’re seeing is a lot of people realize that this is an issue that can be addressed, that should be addressed and people from all over the state are taking an interest in it,” said Finney, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus.

Coal could be mined more responsibly, and it would benefit Tennesseans to not destroy and desecrate one of the powerful symbols of the state’s history, said Charles White, an active member of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added that coal can be mined in other ways that would provide more jobs and be more “environmentally” cost-effective.

“It’s high time for our elected officials to give this legislation a chance to be discussed by the full House and Senate,” White said.

The Scenic Vistas Act is scheduled to be heard in both the Senate Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources committee and the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Subcommittee Wednesday.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Mark Norris, R-Collierville, also have a bill (HB0875/SB1139) that aims to stem water pollution from surface mining. The bill would prohibit the issuance of permits that allow mining waste within 100 feet of any stream’s high water mark. The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.