Opponents of mountaintop coal mining haven't given up after Tennessee senators, in what they called "a calculated act of political cowardice," last week delayed a vote on the Scenic Vistas Protection Act.
Senators avoided an outright decision on a bill to ban mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee. Instead, they voted 19-14 to delay a floor debate and vote until April 2. Moving an issue to the crowded and hurried last days of action typically signals lawmakers do not intend to pursue it.
"[This] vote was a calculated act of political cowardice," said J.W. Randolph, Tennessee director for the environmental organization Appalachian Voices. "Senators chose to delay the bill, hoping it will die in the House, rather than stepping forward to protect Tennessee's historic mountains from the destructive practice of mountaintop removal."
A coal industry executive defended the mining method in an article on the Friends of Coal website.
"In my mind, mountaintop 'removal' implies the site is mined and then left barren, lifeless and flattened. This couldn't be further from the truth," wrote Chris Hamilton, of the West Virginia Coal Association.
"We rebuild the mountain peak, resculpting it to approximately as close as possible to the original pre-mining topography of the land, then we reseed it with grasses and trees," he said.
Chuck Laine, president of the Tennessee Mining Association, also balked at the term mountaintop removal.
"I don't call it [the kind of mining done in Tennessee that blasts tops off mountains and ridge lines] anything," said Laine. "We follow the definition of the Department of Interior. The industry doesn't think we need a new definition. We already follow the law. We restored 10 streams and planted over 400,000 hardwoods. Mining in Tennessee cleans up the environment."
BEHIND THE SCENES
The bill to ban mountaintop removal, sponsored by Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, already has been active in the General Assembly for five years.
When he offered his original bill for a floor vote Monday, Stewart pleaded with colleagues.
"When this bill was [first] introduced, there were five mountains permitted for surface coal mining above two thousand feet in Tennessee. Now there are 13," said Stewart, who represents Franklin, Bledsoe, Coffee, Grundy, Sequatchie, Van Buren and Warren counties.
"Removing the top from a mountain is removing the top from a mountain, no matter what you call it, or where you put the little pieces after the damage is done," Stewart said.
A version of the bill passed the Senate's Energy and Environmental Committee on Feb. 29, but it included a last-minute amendment, offered by McMinn County Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville.
The amendment rewrites the bill to adopt the United States Department of Interior's definition of mountaintop removal mining.
Bell said he suggested the amendment "trying to bring some closure - some type of resolution to this issue."
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has opposed Stewart's bill and praised Bell and his amendment, saying it "would remove all doubt and make it clear that mountaintop mining will not be allowed in Tennessee."
But Stewart and Randolph say the amendment guts the intent of the original, more protective bill because it does no more than what already is required.
What the amendment says is this: "No permit shall be issued that would allow placement of excess overburden [the removed ridge line] in streams ... from a mountaintop removal surface mining operation that removes an entire coal seam or seams running through the upper fraction of a mountain, ridge, or hill," instead of restoring the mountain or ridge to its "approximate original contour."
Basically, federal law - and Bell's amendment - say mining companies can't flatten the mountain, but they can remove the mountain, then pile it back.
On Tuesday, the Tennessee House of Representatives' Subcommittee on Conservation and Environment is scheduled to vote on the House version of the bill, though Laine and Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, the panel's co-chairman, say the bill likely won't get a hearing.
Advocates say there's been public and bipartisan support for passing the bill, but Ramsey, the lieutenant governor, has opposed it because he said Tennessee needs the jobs. In 2010, a Nashville television station's review of campaign disclosures showed Ramsey garnered $195,000 in contributions from coal companies. Tennessee had 546 mining jobs in 2010: 202 in underground mines and 344 in surface mines, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Randolph said Ramsey's opposition has stymied efforts to stop mountaintop removal.
"Because of the public pressure, many members of the caucus want to support the bill, but this puts them in a difficult position - between public opinion and following orders from the leader of their party," Randolph said.
Now the advocates' hopes are pinned on public opinion swaying the East Tennessee lawmakers who value mountains - such as Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson.
But Watson and Floyd are noncommittal.
"The mining industry has their feet in concrete, and they're not interested in negotiating. They know what they want. And the environmental groups are lobbying hard. They know what they want," Floyd said. "Myself? The jury's still out on how I'm going to vote."
Floyd said most coal reserves in the state are in ridge lines north of Nashville, and he's been told most of the mined coal is shipped to Russia.
"Tennessee is the Saudi Arabia of coal, and you either have to dig it out of the ground or you have to blow something up somewhere to get it," he said. "We just have to make sure we don't tread on property rights, and we've got to make sure we don't impede on people's rights to open a business.
"It's like somebody coming in and telling me, 'Well, you've got a rock on your yard, so you're not going to be able to dig there and build a room on your house,'" Floyd said.
Watson was among the 19 senators who voted March 12 to delay the Senate floor vote on Stewart's original bill.
"My personal position is I don't like the original bill, and I don't like the amendment, either," Watson said. "It appears to me that both sides of this issue have locked themselves into a position, and it has become difficult to get a reasonable solution that both parties can agree to. So now it has become a political issue, and that's unfortunate."
Watson discounted any possibility of a moratorium on new projects while something is hammered out.
"I'm not sure you'd want to cost people employment opportunity and cost an industry while the Legislature debates about an issue," he said.
Watson said the issue "has become so mischaracterized that it's difficult for people from outside to determine facts from fiction. For example, if you look at some of the commercials the [bill] proponents have run, their imagery is not even from Tennessee. It's from another state."
On Saturday, Stewart said chances of the bill's passage are "better than they ever have been, but it's still a long haul. We're very possibly a vote or two short right now in the Senate."
He said "Big coal" is an influential industry that spends a lot of money in political campaigns.
"And unfortunately, with the way our system is today, that's been a huge part of the problem. I certainly hope that's not the case [here] and that the folks who are opposed to it take a look at this issue based on the feelings of their voters and ... not the special interests."
Sen. Mark Norris, the Republican from Collierville who won the delay of a vote last week - could not be reached for comment.
Floyd said the issue is a difficult one for lawmakers.
"This is going to be one of those probably where the winner takes all," he said. "It's a serious bill, and we should take it that way. I think we will."
Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.