Blasting Rocky Top?

While it's true that the vast majority of mountaintop removal coal mining takes place in West Virginia and Kentucky, make no mistake: coal companies have their eye on Tennessee’s rocky tops.  Unlike those other states, the Tennessee legislature currently is considering a bill to end so-called high elevation mining.  The bill is fittingly named the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act.   According to the LEAF , the faith-based citizen's group leading the fight to pass this common-sense bill, the members of the Senate Environment Committee hold the fate of the mountains in their hands.

Today the Chattanooga Times Free Press weighed in on the matter with an editorial excorciating some Tennessee politicians for their stance on the issue.  As the paper notes, the travesty of mountaintop removal "has not yet laid waste to much of Tennessee" as it has in neighboring Appalachian states.  Thus far four peaks have been flattened although the editorial expresses "great trepidation" about the "potential wave of mountaintop slaughter", acknowledging a concern that:

"This rapacious devastation of Tennessee's beautiful mountain tops will proceed apace as surely as dew forms on spring grass unless Tennessee's lawmakers step up to the challenge of banning this environmentally monstrous excuse for mining."

The editorial then calls out Republican gubernatorial candidates, including the current state Senate majority leader, who is seen as the leading opponent of the Scenic Vistas bill.  By his own admission the majority leader, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, is not just an apologist for the practice but an enthusiastic volunteer when it comes to leveling Rocky Top.  The editorial calls Mr. Ramsey's position "laughable if it were not so uniformed, absurd and propagandistic.  He's wrong on the facts, the effect and the motivation of both mining companies and sensible environmental watchdogs."

The editorial enlightens its readers about what's at stake:

"Mountaintop removal mining is anything but surgical: It uses explosives literally to blow off the tops of mountains, sending avalanches of trees, boulders, dirt and debris down the mountainsides, choking and killing streams and poisoning land in the valleys below with metals and coal-laced toxins that contaminate water supplies and destroy wildlife habitat.

"The explosions are used, in place of traditional shaft mining, to expose coal veins for surface removal by huge machines that replace traditional miners, diminishing jobs and increasing profits for the companies.  These companies ignore -- and pass along to the rest of us -- the cost and consequences of the environmental destruction spewed by the explosions, the debris and the toxic runoff from the mine sites.  They never -- and never can -- adequately reimburse the affected valley communities for their externalized costs of environmental destruction.

"They just pocket their big profits, scrap some dirt and bunch grass back on the unstable, blown-off mountain table, and go kill another mountain and the land and streams below it."

The editorial also debunks the myth perpetrated by industry proponents that curtailing this reckless method of strip mining will increase people's electric bills, arguing:

"The issue is not whether to allow creation of electric energy.  It is whether the destruction of our mountains makes sense relative to our options of traditional deep-shaft mining, reasonable environmental controls on the damage mines cause, other fuels and alternative sources, and prudent conservation regarding our use of energy."

In addition, the editorial recounts recent testimony in the Tennessee legislature by by research biologist Dr. Dennis Lemly of Wake Forest University, who told the Senate committee members that dangerous levels of toxic chemicals released by mountaintop mining practices "are just like ticking time bombs waiting to explode" and "have pretty much exploded" at the four sites in Tennessee now subject to mountain-top removal mining.  "The question is how many more will be allowed to," he said. 

The editorial summarizes Dr. Lemly's dire warnings to the state legislature:

"He said pollution of selenium and other heavy metals at the Zeb Mountain (mountaintop) mine in Campbell County 'is substantial and it's not going to stop.'  Speaking later before the House Environment Committee, he said research shows 'increased incidence of cancers, of kidney disease, of respiratory disease and even deformities in young children and infants that are associated with increases in mountain-top miming.  That's related to the entire suite of contaminants, not just selenium.'"

NRDC applauds the Chattanooga Times Free Press for its strong stance against what the paper characterizes accurately as "needlessly rapacious destruction of our mountains."  We'll be watching and hoping that Tennessee's state lawmakers truly value their scenic vistas.

(Zeb Mountain, Tennessee : photo by United Mountain Defense)