The state House environment subcommittee adjourned for the year Tuesday without voting on legislation to ban coal companies from mining by dynamiting Tennessee’s mountaintops.
The adjournment, which came by a vote of 6-4, effectively kills the bill for the third straight year. The companion legislation is stalled in a Senate committee.
Advocates say the method of mining known as mountaintop removal threatens the state’s tourism industry as well as water quality and even the health of people living in towns in the valleys below.
“Surely we want to protect the tourism in the state of Tennessee,” said the sponsor, Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland. “It’s $14.2 billion a year industry that draws more than 50 million visitors to our state. They don’t want to see the ridgelines blown off with dynamite.”
The Tennessee Mining Association claimed the state stood to lose 6,000 jobs by banning mountaintop mining. But under questioning, association president Chuck Lane conceded he was including jobs that are somehow related to mining, and McDonald said only 381 people in Tennessee actually work in surface mining.
Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, argued the legislation violates individual property rights.
“The Supreme Court could very well rule it is a taking," Niceley said. “I know people without land don’t worry about property rights. But this country was built on property rights, and the rights of the property owner have got to be protected. This is a taking, without a doubt.”
The subcommittee voted unanimously for an amendment to strengthen the legislation before deciding to adjourn. McDonald denounced the move as a gambit by which lawmakers can tell constituents they cast a pro-environment vote while actually killing the bill.
“This is a tactic to kill the bill,” McDonald said. “Tennesseans should be outraged.”
In this method of mining, coal companies chop down trees, scrape up the topsoil, then stuff fertilizer and fuel oil into drill holes and blast up to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains.
The resulting tons of rubble often are dumped into hollows and creeks or just piled back up on top of the mountains once the coal is extracted, according to environmentalists. Coal companies say they reclaim the land by planting grass and trees.
A coalition of conservationists and church groups have pushed the ban on mountaintop removal in Tennessee. Most mountaintop mining in this country has occurred in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia. In Tennessee, coal companies have used this method most notably at Zeb Mountain on the Cumberland Plateau’s eastern edge — “the poster child for ugly mountains in Tennessee,” as coalition leader Dawn Coppock puts it.
In other legislative news, a bill by Rep. Janis Sontany, D-Nashville, to make cruelty to farm animals a felony instead of a misdemeanor died for lack of a motion in the House agriculture committee.