Ron Ramsey's mine canary

The civic travesty of so-called mountain-top removal mining, though widely used in West Virginia and in some other Appalachian states, has not yet laid waste to much of Tennessee. At the moment, just four of Tennessee's peaks and the valleys below them are subject to utter despoliation: we say "just four" with great trepidation of a potential wave of mountain-top slaughter. This rapacious devastation of Tennessee's beautiful mountain tops will proceed apace as surely as dew forms on spring grass unless Tennessee's lawmakers step up to the challenge of banning this environmentally monstrous excuse for mining.

So it is mystifying that Republican gubernatorial candidates Ron Ramsey, the state Senate majority leader, and 3rd Dist. Rep. Zach Wamp just blew off the question of whether they would support a ban in Tennessee on mountain-top removal mining practices. By contrast, two other Republican candidates, Bill Haslam and Bill Gibbons, and both Democratic candidates, Mike McWherter and Kim McMillan, embraced a ban on mountain-top removal mining.

The majority leader revealed

Mr. Ramsey's response to that question in this newspaper's Sunday (Mar. 14) forum on the economy speaks volumes about his appalling lack of knowledge and concern about this issue, and about his philosophical and political orientation on such issues.

His response was: "The so-called 'mountain-top' removal techniques used in other states have not been used in Tennessee. This is a straw-man argument pushed by those who want to drive up your monthly energy bill by ending all oil and coal exploration permanently in the service of radical environmentalism."

Mr. Wamp said, as well, that "mountain-top removal is not actually practiced in Tennessee." He then failed to say whether he would support a ban on the practice. We lament his conflicted ignorance of the issue and the sites where it is practiced, and refer him to Sen. Lamar Alexander, who has endorsed a ban because of the gruesome destruction wreaked by mountain-top mining in Tennessee.

Wrong on all counts

Mr. Ramsey's response would be laughable if it were not so uniformed, absurd and propagandistic. He's wrong on the facts, the effect and the motivation of both mining companies and sensible environmental watchdogs.

Mountain-top removal mining is anything but surgical: It uses explosives literally to blow off the tops of mountains, sending avalanches of trees, boulders, dirt and debris down the mountainsides, choking and killing streams and poisoning land in the valleys below with metals and coal-laced toxins that contaminate water supplies and destroy wildlife habitat.

The explosions are used, in place of traditional shaft mining, to expose coal veins for surface removal by huge machines that replace traditional miners,diminishing jobs and increasing profits for the companies. These companies ignore -- and pass along to the rest of us -- the cost and consequences of the environmental destruction spewed by the explosions, the debris and the toxic runoff from the mine sites. They never -- and never can -- adequately reimburse the affected valley communities for their externalized costs of environmental destruction.

They just pocket their big profits, scrap some dirt and bunch grass back on the unstable, blown-off mountain table, and go kill another mountain and the land and streams below it.

Mr. Ramsey, speaking like a parrot of mining owners, calls criticism of such mining a "straw-man argument by those who want to drive up your monthly electric bill by ending all oil and coal exploration permanently." But where did he get this idea? Rational citizens and environmental advocates know energy has to come from somewhere. No rational person wants to "drive up your monthly electric bill" -- or their own.

Tennessee and other states have allowed coal mining for generations, and likely will continue to do so. Most citizens also will accept nuclear power, along with TVA's river-controlling hydroelectric dams.

A need to find balance

The issue is not whether to allow creation of electric energy. It is whether the destruction of our mountains makes sense relative to our options of traditional deep-shaft mining, reasonable environmental controls on the damage mines cause, other fuels and alternative sources, and prudent conservation regarding our use of energy.

If Mr. Ramsey, the state Senate majority leader and lieutenant government, really believes what he says, he must have missed the testimony last week before his senate's Environment Committee. The research biologist who spoke to that committee, Dr. Dennis Lemly, said that dangerous levels of toxic chemicals released by mountain-top mining practices "are just like ticking time bombs waiting to explode" and "have pretty much exploded" at the four sites in Tennessee now subject to mountain-top removal mining.

"The question is how many more will be allowed to," he said.

Shocking scientific verdict

He said pollution of selenium and other heavy metals at the Zeb Mountain (mountain-top) mine in Campbell County "is substantial and it's not going to stop." Speaking later before the House Environment Committee, he said research shows "increased incidence of cancers, of kidney disease, of respiratory disease and even deformities in young children and infants that are associated with increases in mountain-top miming. That's related to the entire suite of contaminants, not just selenium."

If Mr. Ramsey is not aware of the mountain-top removal mining that is presently occurring Tennessee, and that has been subject to debate over a ban on the practice for three years, he is incompetent to be governor.

If he is aware and still spouts baseless propaganda, it would be folly to vote for him. He likely would continue to allow needlessly rapacious destruction of our mountains.

Mr. Wamp, as well, has clouded his credibility on this and other issues.

Tennessee's future quality of life and the land we bequeath to our children depend on good governance in our highest state offices. There's no room for ignorance or misguided policies there. We already can count Mr. Ramsey inadequate to the job.