Tuesday, September 2, 2014 · 12:41 p.m.

The fight for Tennessee’s mountains

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Nearly 1.2 million acres—an area almost as large as Delaware—have been heavily mined in Appalachia. (Image: Ross Geredien, Assessment of the Extent of Mountaintop Mining in Appalachia)

On Wednesday, Tennessee Director for Appalachian Voices J.W. Randolph and his colleague in conservation Ann League were silenced prior to testifying before the Tennessee State Senate Committee on Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources regarding the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, bipartisan legislation that would ban high-elevation surface mining techniques—such as mountaintop removal on peaks more than 2,000 feet in elevation in the state.

Before Randolph and League had the chance to speak in defense of the bill, it was killed after failing to get a single vote to be heard.

“Just as we were called up to speak, the chairman [Sen. Steve Southerland, a former sponsor of the bill] stopped us short,” Randolph said in a statement. “Several members had left the room, and when none of the committee members offered a motion on the bill, the chairman declared the bill dead, and we were not allowed to speak.”

During the committee meeting, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson, faced five Republicans while three potential supporters were absent, including Sens. Charlotte Burks of Monterey and Ophelia Ford of Memphis, who have both voted for the bill in the past. Also missing was Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, who had supported the bill in the past. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, was among those who failed to make a motion to vote on the bill.

“Despite the fact that Tennesseans from the left, right and center and from a broad array of interests have come together to protect our mountains, our voices were shut out,” Randolph said.

Meanwhile, 25 employees of coal mining companies filled the Senate hearing room, including Alex Housley, operations manager at Triple H, a coal operation based in Jacksboro, Tenn., which has reportedly been bought out by the Chinese company Guizhou Guochuang Energy Holding Ltd.

The purchase of the Triple H coal operation in Jacksboro is thought by industry experts to be the first Chinese acquisition of U.S. coal assets. The coal from that operation is expected to be exported to China to make steel.

Coal exports have grown from Appalachian operations over the past few years, according to a recent report prepared by the Energy Information Administration.

As the global market for coal increases, Tennessee’s coal is also being eyed. Currently, all of Tennessee’s coal production occurs in just three counties: Claiborne, Campbell and Anderson. Roughly three-quarters of Tennessee’s coal comes from surface mines.

“Nearly every inch of the high-elevation surface mines in Tennessee are owned by out-of-state or foreign coal operators, who are sending our mountains and our money back out of state,” Randolph said. “In return, we are left with layoffs, poverty and poisoned water.”                 

Today, the predominant method of coal mining in the Appalachian Mountains is mountaintop removal, a form of extracting coal that uses heavy explosives to remove hundreds of vertical feet of a mountain to access thin seams of coal underneath. The “overburden” is then dumped directly into adjacent valleys, burying headwater streams.

A mountaintop removal surface mining operation at Zeb Mountain in Campbell County, Tenn. (Photo: Appalachian Voices)

To date, more than 500 mountains have been leveled, and nearly 2,000 miles of Appalachian headwater streams have been buried and polluted by mountaintop removal.

Communities affected by mountaintop removal find the impacts to be far-reaching, including contaminated drinking water, forceful blasting near residential dwellings, increased flooding, and unsafe sludge and slurry impoundments.

A study published this month in the online Journal of Rural Health indicated that adults in communities surrounded by mountaintop removal were 54 percent more likely to die of cancer than those in similar, non-mountaintop removal counties.

“Mountaintop removal is not just an environmental issue, it’s an economic, human rights and public health issue,” Randolph said. “We will work on this issue until our mountains and mountain communities are safe—because our homes and are health are non-negotiable.” 

For Randolph, who grew up in a log cabin along the banks of the Tennessee River, the cause is personal.

“Growing up in the woods and waters of East Tennessee is how I learned what ‘home’ means,” the 2001 Baylor School graduate said. “In 2005, I saw mountaintop removal for the first time—at Kayford Mountain in southern West Virginia—and I knew that I would be working on that issue until it was over. I felt violated when I saw it; I was really just crushed by the scale of it. Most of us have seen pictures, but you cannot anticipate the scale of a mountaintop removal site until you step foot on it.”

Randolph encourages citizens to contact their state legislators to tell them to end mountaintop removal in Tennessee.

“It is absolutely critical to our success that individuals contact their state legislators as early and as often as possible,” he said. “Two things move votes: money and people. We may not be able to walk into somebody's office and write a big fat check, but by standing together and speaking with our elected officials, we can all be a part of the solution."

To learn more about mountaintop removal, visit the Appalachian Voices website.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a freelance writer and naturalist living on Walden’s Ridge. Her writing interests include conservation and outdoor family adventures in the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.

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