Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to weigh state oversight of coal mining industry

Lawmakers pass bill seeking to reclaim state's enforcement of strip mining rules from federal government

In this 2008 file photo, a mountaintop removal strip mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., is shown with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, File)
In this 2008 file photo, a mountaintop removal strip mining site at Kayford Mountain, W.Va., is shown with Coal River Mountain, left, in the background. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, File)

NASHVILLE - State lawmakers on Thursday sent a bill to Gov. Bill Haslam's desk that aims to put Tennessee in charge of strip mine enforcement for the first time since 1984, when the federal government took away the state's enforcement regulation.

Senators accepted changes made in a House-passed bill, approving the final version on a 27-4 vote.

The state's coal mining industry pushed the legislation for four years before hitting pay dirt.

Proponents hope the legislation will rejuvenate surface mining in Tennessee, creating opportunity and jobs in economically distressed regions of the state such as portions of the Cumberland Plateau.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Ken Yager, R-Kingston, and Rep. Dennis Powers, R-LaFollette, who represent areas where coal severance taxes are important sources of revenue for hard-strapped local governments.

Mining and mining supplier groups said the measure could generate as many as 800 jobs. There are only three or four companies now mining, but proponents say more could come to the state.

But a coalition of 20 environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, delivered a letter to Haslam urging him to veto the bill. They warned that if the governor signed the bill into law it would "significantly weaken protections relating to coal mining in Tennessee."

The legislation would transfer authority to regulate coal mining from the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

"Tennessee can ill afford to take over a federal program doing a decent job of regulating and enforcing the laws governing coal mining in the state," said Axel Ringe, conservation chairman of the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. "Allowing this bill to go forward will give the job to a state agency that is ill-equipped, chronically underfunded, and has a dismal record of enforcing its own coal mining regulations."

Tennessee is the only coal-mining state in the country without oversight or "primacy" over coal mining regulation. Because of that, the state doesn't have a program to issue permits or enforce rules. Instead, the federal government does.

During recent House debate, Powers argued federal oversight has put Tennessee at a disadvantage with other states when it comes to expanding coal mining here, The Tennessee Journal reported last week.

Powers said that in Kentucky, which has control over state mining operations, it takes eight to 12 months to get a permit. In Tennessee, getting a permit from the federal government can take four to five years, Powers said.

Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau has raised concerns about the legislation.

But Yager told colleagues he promised Haslam that no state general fund dollars will be spent if the bill becomes law, The Journal reported.

Yager told senators Thursday that, as amended, the bill relies on the federal government providing half the money to run the program - about $2.5 million. Mining industry fee assessments will provide the remaining 50 percent, Yager said.

"I want to make sure we're not going to launch this process until we've received the actual federal funding," Senate Democratic Caucus Chairman Jeff Yarbro of Nashville told Yager.

Yes, replied Yager, it's "contingent on federal funding."

In 1984, The Associated Press reported that federal officials were calling Tennessee's strip mining enforcement "grossly deficient" and announced they were taking over inspection of surface mines and enforcement.

Then-Gov. Lamar Alexander was quoted saying he had "reluctantly concluded" to ask state lawmakers to begin an "orderly withdrawal of the regulation of surface mining," AP reported.

The Office of Surface Mining originally sought to take over only inspections of mine sites and the enforcement of related laws, leaving the state with control over bonding and mining permits. According to a 1983 Office of Surface Mining report, Tennessee was conducting only about 15 percent of the required monthly inspections of active mine sites.

Alexander said the partial takeover was "unworkable" and federal officials should assume full control, which was done when Tennessee gave up its program.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 616-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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