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Tennessee legislature weakens coal mining oversight

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

A former surface mining site in Tennessee. Photo taken October 2012, flight courtesy Southwings

On April 12, the Tennessee legislature passed a coal industry-backed bill that would deal a significant blow to regulations protecting communities near coal mines. The Primacy and Reclamation Act of Tennessee, which awaits Gov. Bill Haslam’s decision, would transfer authority to regulate coal mining from the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to a new division under the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. If he does not veto or sign the bill by May 1, 2018, it will automatically become law.

Appalachian Voices, alongside 19 other environmental and community organizations, sent a letter to Gov. Haslam on April 12 urging him to veto the bill. Local and regional citizens’ groups oppose the legislation because it would weaken protections for communities and the environment, and become an unnecessary burden on Tennessee taxpayers.

The bill does not exclude protected areas such as state parks, state forests and other public lands from surface mining. Additionally, the bill does not prohibit mountaintop removal mining and would allow the practice of valley filling, in which all of the rubble created by blasting is dumped over hillsides, burying headwater streams.

Urgent action needed — Tell Gov. Haslam to veto the “Strip Mine TN Act” before May 1, and contact your state representatives about how they voted!

Tennessee is currently the only active coal mining state that does not directly regulate mining — but it hasn’t always been like that. Federal officials revoked Tennessee’s regulatory authority in 1984 for being “grossly deficient” and the state subsequently repealed its surface mining laws. According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, as of 1983, “Tennessee was conducting only about 15 percent of the required monthly inspections of active mine sites.”

“Tennessee can ill afford to take over a federal program doing a decent job of regulating and enforcing the laws governing coal mining in the state,” said Axel Ringe, conservation chair of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “Allowing this bill to go forward will give the job to a state agency that is ill-equipped, chronically underfunded, and has a dismal record of enforcing its own coal mining regulations.”

In the long term, funding for the program would rely partially on non-guaranteed federal grants and partially on coal industry production taxes. Additionally, Tennessee only has three mines producing coal, making it hard to sustain an effective program or even justify it in the first place.

people by coal mining equipment

April Jarocki and Appalachian Voices’ Matt Hepler standing next to a drill rig parked next to the Hatfield Cemetery near Cooper Ridge Mine, owned by KopperGlo.

This would likely lead to tax dollars making up the difference, as creating and staffing a new state bureaucracy isn’t exactly cheap — the Tennessee General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee estimates a new mining program would cost the state nearly $500,000 in the first year and more than $1 million in the second year, even after accounting for revenue generated through coal mining fees and taxes. The committee estimates that fees will be fully covered by federal funding and the coal industry by 2020, but this relies on inflated assumptions regarding coal production and mining permit applications.

Additionally, the OSMRE is still required to oversee the state every step of the way to make sure Tennessee doesn’t return to its pre-1984 habits of not even attempting to achieve the bare minimum of regulatory enforcement.

In a press release, Appalachian Voices states that “TDEC’s existing enforcement of coal pollution protections under the Clean Water Act fails to protect the safety and quality of Tennessee waterways. In fact, TDEC has not taken a single enforcement action against a coal mine in the last two and a half years, despite ongoing pollution concerns, lawsuits and other appeals.”

Even TDEC agrees that signing this bill into law would be a mistake for Tennessee. TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski told the Associated Press that the agency is “concerned that there will not be sufficient revenue generated to adequately fund the program and that state general fund dollars will ultimately be necessary.”

The Tennessee Mining Association claims that signing this bill into law would lead to more coal mining in the Volunteer State — which would not be the case. The decline in coal production is largely due to the fickle hand of capitalism, not environmental protections. Other states in the region have experienced similar declines in coal production, despite having primacy over mining regulations.

“The coal industry has been in steep decline around the country for several years because it’s being outcompeted by other energy sources,” said Appalachian Voices’ Central Appalachian Program Manager Erin Savage. “Rather than implementing a new mining program in an ill-conceived effort to bolster coal, the state should be spending time, energy and money on mined land reclamation and economic diversification in communities that can no longer rely on coal.”





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  1. Harry on May 18, 2018 at 3:30 pm

    How can vested interests of TN State politicians and regulators be anywhere near as effective as even the Trump crippled EPA. Trump will be gone soon and we can return to sanity and progress in replacing fossil fuels.

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