Tennessee’s rolling rural landscapes often seem to exemplify pastoral tranquility. But environmental protection could become a roiling political issue as the 2010 gubernatorial campaign heats up.
Global warming, mountaintop removal, water quality and stream-bank protections, they’ve all been thrown into a political firestorm in ways that will test how the next governor’s administration handles regulatory authority.
Congressman Zach Wamp, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, all Republican gubernatorial candidates, lashed out at environmental regulations in the state at a recent forum in Brentwood, and environmental activists have responded with their own criticisms of the candidates’ remarks and policy priorities.
Ramsey proclaimed the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation “out of control.” Wamp said both TDEC and the Tennessee Department of Transportation “need an overhaul.” Gibbons spoke of state-governmental red tape tying up Tennesseans trying to start new businesses.
Environmental debates have often been cast, for better or worse, as a battle between natural resource preservationists and advocates of economic growth. The Bredesen administration says that’s actually a false reflection of what Tennesseans truly “expect and deserve,” which is “clean air, land and water” and a vibrant economy made up of businesses that wish to protect those things as well.
“To suggest that environmental stewardship is at odds with recruiting business to Tennessee or the successful design and completion of transportation projects is simply out of touch with current reality,” said Tisha Calabrese-Benton, communications director for the Tennessee Deptarment of Environment and Conservation. “Our experience has been that the leading businesses in Tennessee embrace responsible environmental management within their organizations.”
But GOP candidates say they’re concerned about increasingly oppressive regulations at all levels of government, and they worry some state agencies seem more interested in taking policy cues from the feds than in developing programs and protections that seek to balance the legitimate interests of all Tennesseans.
“I frankly think Gov. Bredesen has done a very good job on a lot of things. But I think there are two agencies that are not pro-growth, and they’ve let outside influences, some of which are from Washington, go overboard,” Wamp said, referring to TDEC and TDOT.
Increasingly, the topic of environmental protection is merging with the growing national debate over to what extent states are entitled to pursue their own policy objectives, free of interference from the United States government. In political clashes over the environment, the arguments more and more are revolving around which level of government, federal or state, should be taking the lead in setting the priorities and enforcing the regulations landowners must abide by.
Wamp said he’s becoming alarmed that it seems the federal Environmental Protection Agency is “all over our state.”
“They’re fining our small growers and producers,” he said. “In dairy farming, these people can’t pay their bills, and here comes the federal government with a $15,000-$25,000 fine.”
Wamp said he has seen such issues handled in better ways in the past, and he complimented the performance of Justin Wilson, who served as TDEC commissioner in the administration of Gov. Don Sundquist. Wilson is currently the state comptroller.
“(Wilson) knew the influence the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation had, and he negotiated with the federal government,” said Wamp. “He knew how to use the arm of state government known as TDEC to keep the federal government from overregulating our state.”
Wamp suggested an ideological adjustment of the agencies’ bureaucratic attitudes is currently in order.
“We need a balance of regulation, and frankly I think TDEC has been taken over by the federal bureaucrats, based on policy, and TDOT as well,” he said. “They need new management, in both those agencies, that is sensitive to local government issues.”
County and city officials across Tennessee “will tell you TDEC and TDOT are not cooperative with local governments’ needs on approving things, (like) quickly allowing them to build roads and develop infrastructure.”
Wamp called for a fresh start at the agencies. “It is bureaucratic. It is onerous. They need a new culture at TDEC and TDOT. I don’t know the personalities. I just know we need to start over.”
Gibbons said he didn’t want to identify any individual “red tape” cases, but he perceives a widespread problem for Tennessee businesses seeking various agency approvals as “a lack of movement on things, and bureaucracy sitting on matters for months and months.”
“It’s just a slow-moving bureaucracy where you can’t get the necessary permits to move forward,” he said.
Ramsey brought up streams, including blue-line streams, which refers to streams that flow consistently and are usually designated on maps with blue lines.
“There was a time when the waters were regulated in the state of Tennessee based on what are called blue line streams. I’m a licensed surveyor. I’ve been dealing with this for 20 years,” Ramsey said.
“Now it seems like TDEC has overstepped their bounds in what they’re regulating, that if two raindrops fall together suddenly they have the right to regulate it,” he added. “We’ve got to step back and look at that. We want to protect our waters, but at the same time make sure we’re using good science when we’re doing this.”
After Ramsey’s remarks on mountaintop removal, environmentalists responded, including a Christian organization known as LEAF, for Lindquist-Environmental Appalachian Fellowship. Lindquist refers to Kathy Lindquist, an environmental activist from Knoxville who died in 2005.
LEAF calls mountaintop removal “the most radical and destructive mining method known.”
The Southern Environmental Law Center says the process involves tons of explosives where coal companies destroy mountaintops, resulting in the loss of forest habitat and destruction of streams.
Last year, coal miners in other states called for boycotting Tennessee as a tourist destination in protest of legislation aimed at banning mountaintop removal.