NASHVILLE — Environmentalists say Gov. Bill Haslam made a "terrible decision" in signing into law a bill aimed at putting Tennessee back in charge of coal industry regulation here for the first time in 34 years.
The Republican governor quietly signed the bill into law last week.
"This is a terrible decision for Tennessee taxpayers and for our environment," said Axel Ringe, conservation chair for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Ringe said the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation "very clearly lacks the capacity and infrastructure to implement a coal mining program in Tennessee."
In fact, Ringe said, it's been more than 2 1/2 years since TDEC has taken action against a coal mine operator in an existing state program to regulate surface water discharges.
"We hope that before implementing this program, TDEC will make sure it has the necessary federal funding in hand to put the critical infrastructure in place — including expert hydrologists, geologists and field inspectors — to reduce the harm this decision may have on Tennessee communities and on our absolute right to clean air and water," Ringe said.
The state's coal mining industry pushed the legislation for four years before hitting pay dirt in this year's General Assembly.
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 coal mines in operation now, but proponents say more sites could open because the federal permitting process is too lengthy. Tennessee is the only coal-mining state where the federal government has "primacy" over permitting and inspections.
The legislation seeks to transfer coal-mining regulatory authority from the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement and hand it back to the state for the first time since 1984 when Tennessee's shoddy regulatory practices repeatedly got state officials into trouble.
That same year, federal officials called 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 by The Associated Press at the time saying he had "reluctantly concluded" to ask state lawmakers to begin an "orderly withdrawal of the regulation of surface mining."
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 email@example.com or 616-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.