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This is What an Appalachian Hero Looks Like

Tennessee Senator Eric Stewart Fights for Mountains on Senate Floor

There’s nothing quite like watching somebody who truly understands mountaintop removal speak out in spaces where others might find it difficult to raise their voice. If you love our mountains and you believe in fighting like hell to save them, then I hope you’ll take a few minutes to listen to the words of Tennessee Senator Eric Stewart. Senator Stewart is the sponsor of the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act, which would ban mountaintop removal on Tennessee peaks over 2,000 feet in Tennessee. He is retiring at the end of this session in order to run for Congress in Tennessee’s fourth Congressional District, where many insiders think he has a chance to make a strong challenge to the freshman incumbent.

Below is the text of Senator Stewart’s words on the floor of the Senate chamber. Enjoy!

When a man blows up a mountain, he exceeds his authority. When a man tries to rebuild a mountain, he exceeds his ability. We have a duty to protect these mountains.- State Senator Eric Stewart

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Full text below…

TSVPA SB 577 – March 12, 2012, Senator Eric Stewart

Leading up to this session, voters across Tennessee observed 40 Days of Prayer for their Mountains. Clergy from 11 denominations wrote prayers across the state. Tonight, Christians again pray for our discernment, and for our mountains. There are some even in this building tonight that are in prayer as we speak. It is in that spirit that I urge this body to consider this bill.

The bill with the amendment that was originally proposed in Committee two weeks ago defines a ridgeline, a term not previously defined in Tennessee law. The only limitation in the bill says that new coal mining permits can not alter or disturb ridgelines above 2,000 ft. Exceptions make up the remainder of the bill.

Existing permits are unaffected and can be renewed in all 13 of the currently permitted surface mines above 2,000 feet. Underground mining and abandoned mine land can be reclaimed.

The coal industry talks about all the good they do to reclaim that abandoned mine land, and we are willing to work with them, so we added that as an exemption. The bill does not apply to non-coal mining activities, like roads,railroad crossings, or even coal mining above 2,000 feet that does not disturb a ridgeline.

Amendment 1 & 2 as we’ll see protect mountaintops.The only difference between permits issued before the bill and permits issued after this bill is the requirement is that mining operations do not alter a ridgeline above 2,000 ft.

In committee, the friendly amendment that i proposed was replaced with a status quo definition of mountaintop removal. The industry likes this definition, because it says that you can take the tops off of mountains, as long as we pile the little pieces back on top of those mountains. Well, of course they like that. If I were them I’d like it too.

Even my good friend the amendment sponsor said that, “From a practical standpoint, it probably won’t have a big affect.” In later statements, however, members of this body have said the problem of mountaintop removal has been solved. Ladies and gentleman, it has not.

This definition does not recognize the difference between a God-made mountain and those so-called “approximate mountains.” A God-made mountain provides a home for His creatures, both man and beast. An “approximate mountain,” looks like an interstate median with sludge ponds. The difference is obvious. Mountaintop removal is still mountaintop removal, regardless of where we put the leftovers.

This kind of talk is not anything new to this issue. In 2009, the definition of a stream buffer zone became law at the request of the coal industry. TDEC already required a stream buffer zone, yet the coal industry claimed the bill ended mountaintop removal. Last year, a bill was offered to end coal mining in the Great Smokey Mountains, where there is no coal and where this body has no say. Again, that bill was an attempt to claim mountaintop removal had been stopped. And now this year we have an amendment 1 to 1 that once again claims the end of mountaintop removal. Let me be clear: amendment 1 to 1 does not stop mountaintop removal. Our citizens have spoken, and yet we continue to create decoys, delay, and delay real action.

We can stop all that tonight.

The Appalachian Mountains are the oldest mountains in America. We are not considering the shape of Tennessee this year or the next 10 years. What we are deciding is what Tennessee is going to look like now, and for the generations to come.

When this bill was originally introduced, there were five mountains permitted for surface coal mining above two thousand feet in Tennessee. Today, there are 13. Those mountaintops were lost as a direct result of our unwillingness to act. We cannot delay any longer. Y’all when I was my daughters age there were 500 mountaintops across this country that aren’t there today. I just wonder how many we’re going to have when my grandchildren are the age of my daughter. Tonight we can help decide what that will look like in Tennessee.

For those seeking a compromise, the coal industry refuses. In fact, they rejected efforts to negotiate as recently as last week. Every year this bill has become weaker, in an effort to make it more acceptable to Big Coal. Maybe our compromise is five years of narrowing the bill. Maybe our compromise is an additional eight mountains they have claimed. My question is, shouldn’t that be enough?

If we give into big coal and lose our mountaintops, what else are we going to lose? Over the past 30 years, the number of Tennessee coal-mining jobs has decreased by 85%. During that same time, we’ve seen a shift from underground mining to explosive-driven surface mining.

According to the National Mining Association, there were a total of 344 surface coal mining jobs in Tennessee. Thats down by about 200 jobs since 2008, even though permits have increased more than 150 percent. If mountaintop removal creates jobs, then why are jobs declining as permits are increasing? Because mountaintop removal employs dynamite, not miners. The whole point of mountaintop removal is to reduce labor cost, putting more miners out of work.

Since oversight of mountaintop removal increased in West Virginia, coal mining jobs there have increased. A shift toward underground mining has increased coal-mining jobs in Appalachia to their highest point in 15 years. We could have more mining jobs in Tennessee to, if we pass this bill.

But what about the jobs of the people who work on the 13 permitted surface mines over 2,000 feet? The bill as presented with amendment 1 or amendment 2 without amendment 1 to 1 grandfathers in all 13 of those permits. Not a single job will be lost as a result of this bill.

But we stand to lose jobs in plenty of other industries, including tourism. Tourism is Tennessee’s second largest industry after agriculture, employing more than 175,000 people. The counties where these mines are located — Anderson, Claiborne, Campbell — receive more than $180 million dollars ever year in direct tourism spending and visitors’ sales taxes. Cumberland Gap, the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, and Big South Fork all showcase the Northern Cumberland Plateau for tourists and outdoorsmen. Yet surface mining occurs even in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Areas, land that we all own together.

Tennessee’s other mountains, the Great Smokey Mountains, are an economic powerhouse. When the Great Smokey Mountains was initially proposed, the logging industry said the exact same thing the coal industry is saying now: that the mountains were ugly; protecting them was a giant waste of time, that those protections would put loggers out of business. Thankfully, our leaders listened to our citizens. We have treasured those mountains ever since, and we are at a similar crossroads today.

We are losing out on jobs when we protect Big Coal. Last year, Hemlock Semiconductor Group testified before the Environment committee. We welcomed Hemlock to Clarksville, where they employ over 500 people. They spoke about why they came here and what component manufacturing companies might follow. They said they had European partners who could produce thousands of jobs and Hemlock wanted them to locate along side their plant here in Tennessee.

But that looked unlikely. They gave two reasons: international red tape and the perception that Tennessee was not hospitable to the green industry. Why would anyone think that? Could it have something to do with the fact that Tennessee continues to destroy our mountains for coal?

There are other opportunities we miss. We have had national experts on water pollution and the timber industry tell us that surface mining sites like the ones we’re creating are poisoning our waters, mutating our fish, and leaving our land unfit for tree growth. We lose out on tourism, timber, fishing, and other industries, all in the name of big coal.

Meanwhile, Big Coal is a big loss for Tennessee taxpayers. An independent study found that, after all the calculations were done, Tennesseans pay more than $3 million dollars every year for the privilege of hosting Big Coal. What do we get for our $3 million dollars? Fewer jobs, more pollution. Why? Why would we let out-of-state billionaires blow the top off of Rocky Top? Our Appalachian Counties are among the poorest in the state, yet they have tremendous economic potential. We can lift our mountain communities, or pile on more oppression.

Allowing Big Coal to Blow up our mountains results in a loss of mountain pride and dignity. How proud of your heritage would you be if your community were plagued with mine-related flooding, or you couldn’t baptize new members of a church because the stream outside the church door was orange from surface coal mining? How proud would you be of the increased risk of birth defects? What’s the cost/benefit analysis of an unhealthy baby or the last 10 years of your mother’s life? These are the uncomfortable questions that reveal common problems in areas of Appalachia. No one would suggest blowing off mountaintops for coal in the Rockies. Our mountaintop communities are devalued only because the people are poor. Their own state government needs to come to their aid, not condone this disrespect.

Finally, I want to appeal to those of faith. As a Christian, God calls me to care for my neighbors and the Earth. That is why so many Christians are praying right now across the state. The Earth and all that is in it are the Lord’s. With this bill, Christians seek to love their neighbor and to uphold the responsibilities we have all been given.

Voters have told us to restore and pass the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act. They have told us by sharing their prayers. They have signed petitions, called radio shows, tweeted, retweeted, Facebooked, blogged. The Knoxville News Sentinel, the Tennessean, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, and the Johnson City Press have all written editorials in support of the bill. In a democracy, voters should decide, and be heard above special interests.

Many in this chamber have said both privately and publicly that we really need to put this issue to bed. The Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act does just that, without amendment 1 to 1.

There’s two things I can promise the ladies and gentlemen of this chamber. With amendment 1 to 1 this issue will still be back next year. The other promise is, of course, that I won’t be.

With amendment 1 to 1, its just passing the buck and moving the issue on down the road a little farther. This issue is much bigger than its sponsor. Its much bigger than any committee, and its much bigger than this body as a matter of fact. This issue is an issue that is important to citizens all across our great state.

I attended one of the prayers sessions, and you know honestly was amazed with the folks and how they felt and what they thought about their support for this bill. Ladies and gentlemen, those folks in prayer honestly, genuinely believe they are put on this earth to be stewards of God’s property. That’s what the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act attempts to do.

Once our mountains are gone, they’re gone for good. When a man blows up a mountain, he exceeds his authority. When a man tries to rebuild a mountain, he exceeds his ability. We have a duty to protect these mountains. It is our responsibility.

With that, Mr. Speaker, I move SB577 on 3rd and final consideration…




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  1. Sigrid Ramos on April 3, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    I can think of nothing more destructive to our land, rivers, animals, and people than mountaintop removal. Big coal and big oil are devastating our country. I hope there is karma or divine retribution for these people running these corporations.

  2. Lisa Canning on March 27, 2012 at 12:14 am

    Thank you, Senator Stewart, from the bottom of my heart. Hallelujah, someone willing to stand up and speak truth to power, and to remind them that we are here to take care of each other and the Earth. If we do that, we will be taken care of. No need for greed. I’m praying here in California for you, all. God bless the Mountains, Tennessee, West Virginia and all of this beautiful planet. Help us heal the harm we’ve done. Amen.

  3. Paula Finck on March 24, 2012 at 6:59 pm

    Thank you Senator Stewart for being as one with nature and the people

  4. Roberta Dees on March 24, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    I live in North Carolina and abhor mountaintop removal in all of our affected states. I am so proud of Senator Stewart. Surely he put the situation in words that everyone can understand. Thank you, Senator!

  5. Cat Vallario on March 24, 2012 at 12:31 pm

    So wonderfully and deeply moved by Sen. Stewarts emotionally charged words to Congress; most esp. his phrase:
    “When a man blows up a mountain, he exceeds his authority. When a man tries to rebuild a mountain, he exceeds his ability. We have a duty to protect these mountains.” — Tennessee State Senator Eric Stewart

    Thank you from the heart for this insight.

  6. Paul Larkin on March 19, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    As a fifth generation Greene Countian,I applaud Sen. Stewart for his eloquent speech. The mountains are the backbone of every native East Tennessean !

  7. Brett Busang on March 19, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Let us hope that Senator Stewart’s plea for environmental stewardship opens up the floodgates for lawmakers who recognize that, in protecting our resources, we protect ourselves.

  8. Brian Sewell on March 19, 2012 at 1:31 pm

    It’s so rare to see a politician truly speak from the heart. When Sen. Stewart sat down, I knew I had seen the real thing. The protection of the mountains as a resource — not exploited for containing a resource — should not only have bipartisan support but should be shared by all faiths, cultures, classes, groups and ages. This speech is sure to have changed minds and hearts.

  9. T Tanner on March 19, 2012 at 11:53 am

    Thank you for standing up for God’s land. It is the home to so many innocent animals and a true place of beauty to come visit with my family and friends. Those mountains are a huge part of our eco system, and coal mining is nothing but wasteful! So thank you again for protecting the mountains!

  10. gloria on March 19, 2012 at 11:48 am

    Thank You, Sen. Stewart !!

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