UPDATE: Both bills described in this post, the Scenic Vistas Protection Act and the Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee, remain in committee after yesterday’s hearing and will not be considered again this session. Senator Lowe Finney, who sponsored the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, told committee members that Tennessee needs to “find a way to protect the natural resources and, frankly, the beauty that we have in those mountain ranges across Middle and East Tennessee,” while also supporting jobs and the economy.
Thankfully, the committee also halted the primacy bill, which would allow the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to take over regulation of coal mining in the state from the federal Office of Surface Mining. Appalachian Voices Tennessee Campaign Coordinator Ann League told The Tennessean that the committee took a “sound course of action today on this ill-conceived bill.” We’ll share more news about these bills on Twitter. Follow us @Appvoices.
Two important legislative efforts face hurdles in the form of a legislative hearing and committee vote today. Both efforts pertain to coal mining and mountaintop removal. One promotes the health of Tennessee’s mountains and mountain communities, the other would harm them.
First, a rightfully controversial proposal to have the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation take over regulation of coal mining in the state from the federal Office of Surface Mining is being considered in the Senate Committee on Energy, Agriculture and Natural Resources today. The committee hearing starts at 3 P.M. EST and can be live streamed here.
Titled the “Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee,” the initiative represents a drain on Tennessee’s financial resources and its natural resources through a weakening of environmental regulations.
The bill, supported by the Tennessee Mining Association and state GOP legislators, calls for a 20-cents-per-ton-tax on coal mined in Tennessee. But that would have to be much higher to come close to covering the costs of the program, which could reach into the millions. As Appalachian Voices’ Ann League wrote in an op-ed in The Tennessean last week, “Tennessee’s annual production of coal is 1.2 million tons, which would yield just $240,000 [under the 20-cents-per-ton-tax] — and coal production is declining.”
Tennessee contributes a negligible amount of coal to national production, and research has found that coal already does more harm than good to the state economy. As written, the proposal makes no economic sense unless you put coal industry profits above the public interest of Tennesseans. If passed, it would reverse a state decision with 30 years of standing.
During the same Senate committee hearing, the legislators will also consider the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill that would protect the state’s highlands by banning mountaintop removal coal mining on the highest ridges of the Cumberland Mountains.
Mountaintop removal threatens one of the primary drivers of tourism in Tennessee: its mountains. The tourism industry generates an economic impact of more than $15 billion and sustains nearly 177,800 jobs. Mountaintop removal’s economic importance to the state pales in comparison — according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2012 Tennessee had fewer than 200 surface coal mining jobs.
Despite having broad bipartisan support, the Tennessee legislature has repeatedly ducked the issue of mountaintop removal. Last year, the sixth session during which the bill was considered, legislators in the Senate killed the bill without a vote or allowing testimony from the public. The House likewise deferred the bill with little consideration or time for debate.
The move prompted the Knoxville News-Sentinel to write an editorial opposing mountaintop removal and criticizing legislators for once again shirking their responsibility to the public and the obligation of their posts. “No discussion means no progress in solving an issue that is important to this area.”
For the seventh year in a row, the Tennessee lawmakers have a chance to vote “yes” on protecting mountains and streams, and promoting a sustainable economy for future generations. We hope they do.