Sohn: Save our Cumberland Mountains with your comments

FILE — A Massey Energy mountaintop removal mine in southern West Virginia in 2010. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
FILE — A Massey Energy mountaintop removal mine in southern West Virginia in 2010. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

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› Download and read the proposal, visit› Comments may be submitted electronically at this link:› Consider attending public meetings scheduled in upper East Tennessee on Jan. 11, 12, 13 and 14. See the schedule at

Five long years after former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, petitioned the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to designate portions of the state's mountain ridges along the Cumberland Plateau as land unsuitable for surface coal mining, the OSM has finally released a draft Environmental Impact Statement and proposal to do so.

The federal mining office also set a 45-day public comment period on the 1,098-page draft that will end on Jan. 25, 2016.

Talk about glacial decision making.

Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, which basically bisects the state from north is south, is renowned for phenomenal forests, rich aquatic life and outstanding outdoor recreation. Bredesen's petition was intended to stop and prevent mountaintop mining on state-owned lands there.

It sort of seems like a no-brainer, right? To protect much of the 500 miles of ridge land that is part of the Connecting the Cumberlands conservation initiative, about 40 percent of the total North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and Emory River Conservation Easement Tract?

But apparently big coal - which owns much of the mineral rights or interests on the Cumberland Plateau - only saw money opportunity - not the beauty and wonder of wild areas where the rivers and streams harbor one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in North America and provide vital breeding habitat for almost a third of all surviving Cerulean warblers, a migratory songbird whose numbers have declined more than 80 percent in the past four decades.

Otherwise, why the long wait? The petition does not affect underground mining or permits for surface mining that have already been issued; nor does it cover any areas in which historical mining has resulted in water pollution from acid mine drainage where re-mining could help improve environmental impacts. But mountaintop removal is cheaper.

In March of 2011, OSM held three public meetings "to receive input" on the state's petition. Since that time - over four and a half years ago - the only mentions of this proposal came from impatient environmental groups like the Southern Environmental Law Center and the National Parks Conservation Association.

Don Barger, southeast regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association, says his preferred alternative is No. 4 (of six identified alternatives) which is to grant the full state-petitioned ridge line area - 67,000-plus acres - with a caveat to allow remining of old sites only when genuine environmental problems will be addressed by that remining.

"The State of Tennessee's petition laid out a rational compromise plan that will allow continued energy development while protecting the State's investment in tourism and recreation and the downstream Big South Fork National River," he said.

We would add kudos to both Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander and the Haslam administration for adding pressure on OSM to finally bring forth a draft proposal.

Alexander, soon after the petition was first filed, asked the Department of Interior Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to carefully consider the petition "because we have seen how protecting the rivers, streams, mountains, forests, wildlife refuges and wilderness areas has been important, not only for our enjoyment of the Great American Outdoors, but it has attracted millions of tourists and thousands of jobs to Tennessee. This draft proposal would not affect other mining within these counties or other parts of Tennessee."

Alexander stayed involved, and Tennessee Attorney General Herb Slattery also wrote to OSM several times.

This has taken far too long, and the people of Tennessee cannot be quiet about it now that we have an opportunity to chime in.

And by the way, don't be fooled by anyone's "jobs" argument on this particular proposal. The documents on this issue indicate that there are a whopping 135 surface coal jobs in Tennessee.

Coal is to tomorrow's energy as the buggy whip is to today's transportation system.

Save our Cumberland Mountains.

You can comment, too

To download and read the proposal, visit

Comments may be submitted electronically at this link: