Tennessee to retake coal mining regulation with industry at rock bottom

Costs transfer from federal government to state

"Mister Peabody's coal train" doesn't run much through upper East Tennessee these days. The trains John Prine sang about in his famous song, "Paradise," are practically non-existent.

Compared to the 1950s and '60s when Claiborne, Campbell and Scott counties were considered coal-mining country, the industry has nearly vanished, according to those who monitor it.

Yet the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is set to resume regulation and permitting of Tennessee's coal mining, taking over from the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement after 37 years. This includes overseeing mountaintop removal and mining in which the Earth's surface is removed and equipment digs into the ground to mine coal.

Sponsors of the legislation say it will give Tennessee "primacy" over coal mining – whereas it was the only coal-mining state without that authority – potentially opening investments in blue gem coal, a low-sulfur coal that isn't used for burning but for making steel and instruments such as solar panels and manufacturing batteries.

Critics