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Robert Houk

Opinion Page Editor
rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com
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As I See It

Big Coal has bought out control of Vista Act

March 5th, 2012 8:46 am by Robert Houk

A popular mantra among many Republicans has been, “Drill, baby, drill!” Now we are hearing: “Blast, baby, blast!”
There are many in this state who don’t want to see the tops of their mountains blown off to get to a little bit of coal. Unfortunately, they are not represented in the state General Assembly.
The issue came up again last week when a bill that was originally written to expressly prohibit mountaintop coal removal in Tennessee was amended and passed in the state Senate’s Energy and Environment Committee to allow for the opposite. Sponsors of the amendment to Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act say their measure adopts the U.S. Department of Interior’s definition of mountaintop removal.
Now really, what could be wrong with that? After all, opponents of the mountaintop coal removal ban have long argued that Tennessee law already forbids the practice. This harmless little amendment to a bill that the mining industry has held up in committee for years just further codifies what is already in the law.
Don’t be fooled by the clever semantics that are being used to distract from the real purpose of the amendment. The truth is the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act has been hijacked by Big Coal to allow mining companies to blast off the tops of mountains in Tennessee.
One local environmentalist told me last week the amendment would allow mining companies to remove mountaintops as long as ‘they pile the rubble back on to re-form the original contours.” 
This is a practice known in the industry as cross ridge mining, and as long as valley fill is not involved then it is not classified as “mountaintop removal.”
Whatever you want to call it, the end results are the same. Dawn Coppock, the legislative director for LEAF (Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship), said the amended bill repeats a federal law on what coal companies can do with “overburden,” which she calls a “sad industry pseudonym” for what is left of a mountain after it is blasted apart.
If the amended Tennessee Scenic Vistas act becomes law, environmentalists fear the measure will spell doom for ridgelines in Claiborne, Campbell and Anderson counties, where 98 percent of all coal in Tennessee is mined.
“The bill, as amended, says that there is no mountain top removal so long as the coal industry molds the rubble into the ‘approximate original contour,’ ” Coppock said. “The Northern Cumberland Plateau is not known for  ‘approximate original mountains.’ It is known for some of the oldest and most beautiful mountains on this earth, molded not by engineers and bulldozers, but by the hands of God himself.”
Not surprisingly, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey praised the amendment as a sensible compromise that protects Tennessee’s mountains while allowing mining companies to continue to do business in this state.
“After years of controversy on this issue, I believe we have finally reached a point that all honest stakeholders in this process can be proud of,” said Ramsey, who has collected more than $195,000 in campaign contributions from coal companies in recent years.
Not so fast. Some of those “stakeholders” say Ramsey is not being honest when he says all interested parties have had an equal place at the negotiation table. They say the coal mining industry has clearly purchased a seat at the head of the table.
Meanwhile, environmental groups weren’t allowed anywhere near the bargaining table.
“He (Ramsey) appears to be is calling the advocates of protecting our ridgelines, like LEAF, dishonest,” Coppock said. “This is ironic in light of the circumstances.”
Coppock said LEAF and other organizations will continue to oppose any efforts to allow mountaintop coal removal in Tennessee. She said the group’s efforts to ban the practice “is not a shell game or semantics.”
The bill is expected to move through the General Assembly with ease, now that it has been buoyed by the pro-mining industry amendment.
This is no longer a bill to protect Tennessee’s precious vistas and watersheds from molestation and contamination. It’s now about jobs and profits. As Ramsey famously told a TV reporter in Nashville a few years ago, “Profits are not a bad word.”
But despite all the talk of the coal mining jobs that would be protected by the amended Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act (which is estimated to number 400 at this time), I’ve not heard a single word regarding what the bill’s passage will cost Tennessee in regard to lost tourism dollars. Torn up mountains are not exactly conducive for growing the state’s emerging eco-tourism industry.

Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at rhouk@johnsoncitypress.com.

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