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More Rocky Tops at Risk in Tennessee

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sunflower in field with mountains in distanceResidents who proudly belt out Rocky Top at the top of their lungs on game day still haven’t raised their voices loudly enough to stop the destruction of their prized mountains.  A few Tennessee lawmakers have managed to once again bury legislation that would have offered some measure of protection against mountaintop removal mining.

The Scenic Vistas Protection Act would have stopped surface mining that disturbs natural ridgelines above a 2,000 foot elevation.  Many people, seeing how catastrophic the practice has been in other parts of Appalachia such as Kentucky and West Virginia, have wanted to proactively save natural resources and protect the health of the state’s residents.  Historically, when entire mountains fall to uncover coal, pollution, poverty and poor health follow.  A procedural move in a Tennessee House subcommittee virtually ensures that the measure  couldn’t become law this year or next.

Earlier in Nashville, key leaders blocked a vote on the Senate floor.  Tennessee Director J.W. Randolph with the I Love Mountains coalition says, “If Republicans in the Senate had been allowed to vote their conscience and allowed to vote with their constituents, this bill would have passed.”  Randolph and others are skeptical of Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey’s ties to the coal lobby and influence he held in blocking a Senate vote. Governor Bill Haslam has been noticeably quiet during this latest round of political maneuvering.

House bill sponsor Mike McDonald, a Sumner County Democrat, laments that another delay in Nashville could mean more mountains lost.  “We’ve lost eight mountains by delay since 2008.”  McDonald notes that current surface mining permits will continue to allow the practice as long as enough Tennesseans are unaware of what’s happening.  There are grave concerns about water and air quality, public health, and loss of forests and streams.  “The people of Tennessee have got to be upset about this enough that they demand action,” McDonald says.”

Tennessee’s is not an environmental concern that falls along stereotypical social or political lines.  The TSVPA has a broad base of support from both Democrats and Republicans, environmental and business leaders, people from all walks of life. Representative Bill Dunn, a conservative Republican from Knoxville, is one of the many Republican Congressional leaders co-sponsoring the measure.  Dunn says, “I remind my fellow Republicans that conservative and conservation both come from the same root word.”  Dunn points out that conserving a valuable resource like coal makes good sense, as does making sure that industrial practices don’t pollute others downstream.  Mountaintop removal produces few jobs for Tennesseans compared to traditional mining, and even fewer compared to tourism jobs that depend on the scenic vistas.

Some of the most impassioned voices for the TSVPA have come from faith-based groups like the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship or LEAF. From a Christian perspective, LEAF seeks to bring people together for the common cause of protecting Tennessee’s environment.  You can read the entire legislative vote count and link to photos of what mountaintop removal mining looks like from the organization’s website.

Mostly out-of-state investors are buying rights to seams of coal in Campbell, Claiborne and northern Anderson Counties, while opponents argue they offer few local jobs in return. Randolph is emphatic that Tennesseans will eventually be able to stop mountaintop removal.  He urges voters in this election year to ask politicians on the campaign trail a question, “Ask them if they stand with the coal lobby or if they stand with the people of Tennessee.  I think it’s that simple.”

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