Front Porch Blog

What Happened in the Tennessee Legislature Today?

Mountaintop Removal Bill Goes to the Senate Floor

We’re still alive! Appalachian Voices and other Tennessee coalition partners have moved the conversation on banning mountaintop removal to the floor of the Tennessee State Senate. The Senate Energy and Environment Committee this morning vote 8-1 to move a bill forward.

BUT, its a bit complicated. Before what we call the “Scenic Vistas Protection Act” was passed from Committee, the title and language of the bill were gutted via an amendment offered by Senator Mike Bell (R) of Polk County. Senator Bell’s amendment erased the bill language as written and inserted a very narrow definition of mountaintop removal that will – by Senator Bell’s own admission – have little if any impact here in Tennessee. The amendment was written behind closed doors, and no one was allowed to see it prior to the actual hearing, even the sponsor of the Scenic Vistas bill, Senator Stewart. Senator Bell’s amendment was actually handed to the members during the committee hearing, giving them no chance to review its impacts. However, there was complete consensus that the members of the Committee wanted to get the issue of mountaintop removal off of their backs. Their phone-lines have been off the hook this week with people asking them to pass the Scenic Vistas Protection Act.

After the amendment was added, the bill sailed through unanimously with the exception of Senator Beverly Marerro, a great mountain advocate who voted against the final bill because of how badly the original bill had been gutted.

Needless to say, the bill as passed is not the Scenic Vistas bill. It is, as we say – a marshmellow – with essentially zero value. It is a blank slate which allows us to take up the conversation of mountaintop removal with the entire 33 member Tennessee State Senate. An amended bill is not the very best scenario that we could have faced, but it isn’t a bad position to be in. For the first time in history, to my knowledge, a mountaintop removal ban will be heard in its entirety on the Senate floor of a state legislative body.

While we are terribly disappointed by the mockery of the legislative process made by Senator Bell, the fact is that the bill could have died in Committee today, or it could have moved to the floor. We now have a chance to go to the floor of the Tennessee State Senate and have a conversation about mountaintop removal, while trying to add some meaningful language back into this bill.

This critical conversation continues, and we need to make sure all Tennesseans step up the pressure and contact their state Senators to let them know that they want to protect our mountaintops in the state of Tennessee by adding meaningful, powerful language back to the bill that will protect our mountaintops and our Appalachian citizens.

An image of the Bell amendment is below the fold, and you can watch the full committee meeting here:
[Note, embedded video is not working for some users. You might try the original site here.]

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Senator Bell’s marshmellow amendment to what was once the Scenic Vistas Protection Act.

Raised on the banks of the Tennessee River, JW's work to create progress in his home state and throughout Appalachia has been featured on the Rachel Maddow Show, The Daily Kos and Grist. He served first as Appalachian Voices’ Legislative Associate and then Tennessee director until leaving to pursue a career in medicine in 2012.