Tennessee Legislature Buries Mountaintop Protection Bill

Today the Tennessee Legislature faced a choice:  to safeguard the state's beloved mountains or leave them unprotected from plundering by the coal industry.  Unfortunately, the politicians volunteered to serve Big Coal rather than save the mountains.

Last week, the Senate Environment Committee, postponed what was expected to be a close vote on the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, a bill that would ban mountaintop mining in the state.  Instead, coal-friendly senators maneuvered to put the onus on their colleagues on the House Environment Committee to take action on the legislation first. 

[UPDATE:  Yesterday’s hearing is now available for viewing on the TN legislature’s website. Click here to watch.  On the left hand side of the screen you can click on HB 0455 to go directly to the discussion on the Scenic Vistas bill.  While watching, note that right at the beginning of the discussion Rep. Joe McCord takes a phone call when the bill comes up -- I wonder if that's a coal industry lobbyist on the line?]

This morning, before the House Committee convened its hearing, The Tennessean ran an OpEd by the state's highest-ranking bishop of the United Methodist Church. The Methodist church in Tennessee, along with every other major Christian denomination has taken a strong position against mountaintop removal mining.  Rev. Richard Willis, Jr. called on the politicians to seek guidance in the scripture in deciding the fate of the mountains, reminding them that:

The first mandate given to humanity in Genesis after God created and pronounced creation good was for humans to take dominion over it and rule over it wisely.   As stewards of God's creation, we must care for all the earth and place the value of creation over the that temptations of power and greed.

Rev. Willis cited Scripture on the importance of stewardship over God's creation, as exemplified by the importance given by Jesus of loving one's neighbor.  Based on this fundamental doctrine, the reverend reasoned that "dynamiting mountain peaks, filling valley floors with discarded earth and poisoning our air and drinking water are not acts of loving one's neighbors."  Rev. Willis noted that "there are other ways to extract coal without removing the tops of our beautiful mountains" and he offered a prayer that the elected officials would act to "ban this unnecessary form of coal mining."

Alas, his prayers went unanswered today.  When the bill came up, Rep. Joe McCord (R-Maryville), Chairman of the House Environment Committee invoked an obscure procedural rule to preempt a vote and then adjourned the committee for the rest of the session.  This means that leaders in both the Senate and the House passed the buck to each other -- with respective committees opting for dirty (coal) tricks to effectively kill the bill.

Details on today's action -- or inaction -- are provided by the Nashville Scene blog.  Yet another blog in Knoxville's MetroPulse (quoting me).  This is the NPR story.  And here's the AP story, which quotes the befuddled bill sponsor Rep. McDonald: "I've never seen it happen. "They vote for the amendment that makes the bill, but you adjourn so you don't have to take a vote on the bill."  Nashville's NewsChannel5 also aired a segment on the saga.

Despite this victory for the coal industry, the bill to ban mountaintop removal came very close to passing.  The shenanigans by coal-friendly politicians notwithstanding, supporters of the legislation will continue the fight to protect Tennessee's majestic peaks.  And for those who believe in divine justice, those callow, cowardly servants of the coal industry -- who choose profits and destruction over public interest and the Lord's sacred handiwork -- will one day reap what they sow.