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Pictured is a mountaintop removal surface mining operation at Zeb Mountain in Campbell
County, Tenn. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Voices

Originally published: 2013-01-25 12:02:11
Last modified: 2013-01-25 12:02:11

App Voices hopeful Tenn. will ban mountaintop removal in 2013

by Anna Oakes

With a new legislative session ahead in Tennessee, Boone-based environmental organization Appalachian Voices is hopeful that North Carolina's neighbor to the west will abolish the practice of mountaintop removal.

Mountaintop removal is a form of surface coal mining in which the tops of mountains are removed, exposing seams of coal. Mountaintop mining can remove 500 feet or more  from the summit to reach buried coal seams.

Mining currently takes place in three Tennessee counties -- Claiborne, Campbell and Anderson -- approximately three hours away from Boone, said J.W. Randolph, Tennessee director for Appalachian Voices.

The Scenic Vistas Protection Act would ban high-elevation surface mining techniques such as mountaintop removal on peaks higher than 2,000 feet in Tennessee. The legislation was first introduced in the Tennessee legislature in 2008, but the bill finally reached the state Senate floor last year. It later died in a House subcommittee, but will be reintroduced this year.

Randolph feels the tide is turning in Tennessee, noting that Nashville newspaper The Tennessean published an editorial in support of the Scenic Vistas Protection Act and that "our Republican governor (Bill Haslam) ran opposed to mountaintop removal."

Haslam has publicly stated that he is not in favor of mountaintop removal but that he is not willing to oppose coal mining as an industry in the state.

"Despite the fact that Tennessee has one of the most conservative legislatures in the country, I think we still have a chance of success this year," Randolph said. "We have helped build a coalition of churches, students and conservation groups that is unparalleled in my nine years of experience. We have a mountain-based tourism industry that employs 175,000 Tennesseans and brings in $14 billion to our state."

Few coal resources exist in North Carolina, but Appalachian Voices has been busy fighting mountaintop removal coal mining in surrounding states during the past decade. In addition to impacts on scenery, environmental groups oppose mountaintop removal because of negative impacts on water quality and forest ecosystems.

In Tennessee, coal industry representatives argue that they rebuild mountain peaks to their original contours and reseed mining sites with grasses and trees. In some cases, former surface mine sites can be converted to flat building sites above the flood plain for schools and other community developments, according to materials from the Tennessee Mining Association.

They also contend that mountaintop removal in Tennessee has primarily been conducted at sites already disturbed by mining in the past.

Randolph invited anyone who wants to see a mountaintop removal mining site to contact the Appalachian Voices Boone office, located at 171 Grand Blvd. The office's phone number is (828) 262-1500.