Environmental groups are seeking to halt two bills floating around the General Assembly that would allow Tennessee to retake authority over surface coal mine permitting in the state.
Currently, permission to mine for surface coal in the Volunteer State is granted by the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, following legislation signed in 1984 by then-Gov. Lamar Alexander that repealed the state's previous surface mining laws.
Two separate bills aimed at undoing that action are currently in Tennessee's Senate.
Senate Bill 1998, sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, and SB 1883, sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, seek to reclaim Tennessee's right to permit surface coal mining and plan to fund the oversight through fees levied against coal companies.
But Renee Hoyos, executive director of Tennessee Clean Water Network, said the state doesn't have the money to regulate surface mining permits, and the proposed fees would have to be exorbitant to replicate what the OSM is doing.
The OSM has an office in Knoxville staffed with hydrologists, geologists, inspectors and other highly trained staffers. If the state took over, it would have to create that bureaucracy at least, she said.
"We have some concerns about the state's ability to enforce the [coal mining] companies or at least keep them honest," she said.
Further, she says only the industry would benefit from the change, and the Tennessee coal industry is tiny -- producing 1 percent of the coal in all of Appalachia.
But Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who sponsored the Niceley bill in the state House, said the industry means a lot to communities in Northeast Tennessee. The surface coal producers pay severance tax, which goes straight to the counties where the mining is happening.
"As I was traveling the state, and more specifically upper East Tennessee, I met a number of people who were interested in clean coal technology," Carr said. "In those counties where surface coal mining was relevant, the coal mining operators were a huge tax base for schools."
Carr, who is challenging Alexander for his U.S. Senate seat post in the Republican primary in August, said Tennessee should never have given its right to regulate coal over to the federal government.
Miners in Tennessee now have to wait three years to get permits, he said. That's too long, Carr said.
Currently, the OSM oversees coal mining in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Georgia.
Sierra Club State Conservation Chairman Axel Ringe agreed with Hoyos about the state's ability or willingness to regulate coal producers.
"What people seem to have forgotten about this is, the reason OSM has primacy over coal mining was in 1984 Tennessee was doing such a terrible job of regulating coal mining," Ringe said.
Mines abandoned decades ago still drip acid into Tennessee's rivers and streams, he said. And the state's coal is so high in sulphur, it can't be used to create power because of clean air laws.
He also said the idea that coal mining boosts local economies is a myth.
"It's no accident that Claiborne County, which is where most of the coal mining is taking place, is one of the poorest counties in Tennessee," Ringe said. "That's because coal mining by its nature is a boom-and-bust industry. ... They run out of coal and they pull out and the community is left with nothing but a devastated mountain."
According to 2012 U.S. Census figures, 23 percent of Claiborne County residents live below the poverty level. In Hamilton County, that figure is 16.2 percent, and it is 17.3 percent statewide.
The median household income in Claiborne is $33,500. That's $11,000 below the state median and $13,000 less than the median income of Hamilton County.
Carr said he is not surprised by the opposition.
"The environmental industry -- because it is an industry now -- is going to have objections about it now regardless of the way the fees are, because they oppose coal," Carr said.
A spokesman for Alexander said Wednesday the then-governor was making decisions based on 1984 circumstances.
"In the 1980s, the federal government was continually second-guessing state inspectors, creating a bureaucratic nightmare. Then-Governor Alexander recommended, and the state Legislature agreed, that if the federal government wouldn't stop interfering with state decision-making, Tennessee would turn it back over to the federal government, which state leaders did," spokesman Brian Reisinger said.
Since then, Alexander has opposed new, more stringent EPA regulations on the coal industry, saying they would drive up costs and hurt job growth.
Representatives with the Tennessee Mining Association did not return telephone calls seeking comment; nor did the OSM, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation or Niceley and Yager.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com or at 423-757-6481.