Today the Tennessee Legislature punted on an expected vote on legislation that would ban mountaintop mining in the state. The vote on the Scenic Vistas Protection Act has been postponed to next week. Could it be that legislators are feeling the heat on this important issue? Well, things are only going to get hotter in Nashville the wake of an investigative story that aired on this evening's local news.
Click here to watch the broadcast or read the accompanying story. Here's an excerpt:
Big coal companies are putting big money into political races in Tennessee. The contributions come as the state legislature debates bills affecting the Tennessee's water and mountains.
A NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed the powerful leader of the state senate, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, who is also running for governor, gets far more from coal interests than anyone else. One former senator claims Lt. Governor Ramsey asked him to drop a bill that would have banned most types of mountain top mining.
Former republican senator Raymond Finney is not what you would call an environmentalist.
"I'm not a tree hugger," Finney said near his home in Maryville, Tennessee. "I don't believe global warming is manmade and all that stuff."
Three years ago Finney sponsored a bill designed to stop most mountain top coal mining. It would have banned surface mining above 2000 feet.
A coal company had just bought the mineral rights to a state wildlife area and threatened to mine coal by blowing the tops off mountains.
"There are some things worth fighting for and this just happens to be one of them," Finney said.
Finney lost that battle.
Tennessee's coal industry is relatively small. Coal mines employ fewer than four hundred people, but NewsChannel 5 Investigates went through campaign finance reports and found their influence was big. Coal related companies – including some from out of state – give hundreds of thousands of dollars to Tennessee politicians.
Since 2009, people with an interest in coal contributed more than $300,000 to people running for office in Tennessee. We found that more than $195,000 went to the powerful leader of the state senate, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey or his political action committee.
Ramsey is now running for governor.
NewsChannel Five Investigates asked Ramsey if he was the coal industry's candidate?
"No, I'm the pro-business candidate. No, I'm pro-jobs candidate. That's exactly what I am," Ramsey responded.