NASHVILLE -- Coal companies and related interests have given at least $150,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Haslam but just $5,000 to Democrat Mike McWherter, state campaign finance disclosures show.
Tennessee's next governor likely will have to grapple with ongoing legislative battles over mountaintop removal mining and with a mining-related petition filed earlier this month by outgoing Gov. Phil Bredesen.
Bredesen asked the U.S. Department of the Interior to declare state-owned or state-managed ridges along the northern Cumberland Plateau "unsuitable for mining."
McWherter said outright he supports the petition. He said Bredesen "has done the right thing by making sure mountaintop removal mining does not scar the landscape forever."
Haslam has offered a more nuanced position, saying he backs efforts to protect the natural resources and beauty of the area but also is concerned for private property rights.
On Monday, Haslam said he is "against mountaintop removal when it talks about cutting off the tops of mountains and pushing them down into valleys."
He added, "I'm not ready to say we shouldn't mine coal in Tennessee, because we use a lot of it."
Asked if he is supporting Bredesen's petition, Haslam said, "I am," but quickly added, "I want to understand more about how it exactly impacts property owners' rights on that. But am I for protecting that area? You bet."
He said he wanted to know more about the wording of Bredesen's petition.
"What's it doing to property owners' rights? What was the agreement that was made beforehand? If it protects that, then I'm in favor of it."
Tennessee coal industry officials say companies do not engage in so-called "mountaintop removal," where dirt and rock are pushed from summits into valleys. They say their permits require them to keep material and use it to restore ridges to their original contours.
Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance records show Haslam's coal-related contributions all came before Bredesen filed the petition.
Most of the money -- $95,000 -- came from executives of Powell Cos., a Johnson City-based construction firm, and their families. Powell has a major division that builds coal preparation plants and operates rock quarries and sand and gravel plants.
Company President James J. Powell served on the campaign finance team of Haslam's primary rival, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville. Powell could not be reached late last week.
State records show all of the Powell-related contributions came in on July 28. That was eight days before Haslam defeated Ramsey and Zach Wamp in the GOP primary.
Just two weeks ago, Powell donated $5,000 to McWherter's campaign.
Other filings show executives with Knoxville-based National Coal Corp., which has fought for three years against efforts to limit mining on Tennessee mountaintops, gave $8,239 to Haslam.
National Coal President and CEO Daniel Roling gave $1,239, state records show. Roling lives in Knoxville and said the mayor has done a "great job" and "understands what it takes for business to survive."
"And I believe he will be open-minded and fair about new business projects, including harvesting of resources in Tennessee," Roling said.
Roling's company owns mineral rights beneath much of the state's Sundquist Wildlife Management Area in Scott and Anderson counties. That area, along with other state-owned or managed lands in Campbell and Morgan counties, would be affected by Bredesen's petition.
Roling charges that Bredesen's plea to protect ridges is "nothing short of illegal" because it represents an unconstitutional "taking" of company property.
He said that when the administration of former Republican Gov. Don Sundquist bought surface rights to what became the wildlife management area, the titles specifically stated "coal had priority over any other use and all owners agreed."
"Now the state is going back on its word," he said.
In an e-mail Saturday, McWherter spokesman Shelby White said Haslam and Ramsey have taken "hundreds of thousands of dollars" from the coal industry.
"Ron Ramsey denies that mountaintop removal occurs in Tennessee, and Bill Haslam appears fine with blowing the peaks off the southern Appalachians," White said.
Cathie Bird is a member of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, which opposes mining along ridges.
"I kind of wonder whose property rights he's talking about," she said of Haslam's remarks. "Now, I'm a landowner and if somebody blows up the mountain behind me, I'd say it impinges on my property rights."
Roling asked why reporters aren't looking into environmentalists' campaign contributions.
State records show Bird has made no contributions in the governor's race. Neither have readily identifiable top leaders in two other environmental groups involved in the mountaintop mining issue, Tennessee Conservation Voters and the church-based Lindquist-Environmental Action Fellowship.
Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...