published Wednesday, March 28th, 2012

Tennessee mountaintop coal bill goes to summer study panel

  • photo
    Engineer Tim Sloane participates in a rally outside the legislative office complex in Nashville on Tuesday, March 27, 2012, to oppose a bill to ban mountaintop removal in the state. Sloane, of Caryville, was among a busload of mining industry members who traveled to the Capitol to rally against the measure. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE — A proposed ban on "mountaintop removal" coal mining in Tennessee died in the House on Tuesday, despite pleas from the measure's sponsor.

Acting on a motion by Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, the House Conservation and Environment Subcommittee voted 6-4 to send the bill to a summer study committee that will meet after the Legislature has adjourned for the year.

Earlier, Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, the bill's sponsor, urged lawmakers to act on an amended version of the bill, which has met opposition from coal industry interests since 2008.

"What would Tennessee be without our mountains?" McDonald said, noting his bill only prevents surface mining that alters or disturbs ridgelines above 2,000 feet and does not affect existing permits.

McDonald said there were five mountains where so-called mountaintop removal occurs when he first brought the bill five years ago. There are 13 now, he argued.

"We've been debating this since 2008," he argued. "It's 2012. The people who support this legislation want a vote."

Floyd said "this is something that's sensitive to a lot of people on both sides of this issue. I can tell you I'm not for blowing the tops of mountains off, but also I'm in favor of property rights."

He added, "I don't think we have all the pertinent information we need to make a good decision," saying further study is needed and lawmakers should await a federal report on the issue.

"This is by no stretch of the imagination a smoke and screen to put this bill off," Floyd said as he offered this amendment to send the bill to summer committee. "I would not want to send the wrong message to either group. What I do support is getting this bill right."

McDonald, who is not seeking re-election, urged Floyd and others to show him "courtesy" and vote his compromise amendment as well as his Scenic Vistas Protection Act up or down.

Mining industry officials and workers came to the Legislature by bus and squeezed into the hearing room and spilled into a hallway. Many wore black T-shirts emblazoned with Legalize Coal" and said the bill threatens jobs.

Industry officials dispute they engage in mountaintop removal, which involves blasting mountain ridges apart to reveal coal seams. The rock and debris are dumped in streams and create valley fills.

"What people don't realize is that mining occurred back in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s where they actually took the spoil and pushed it over," said Patrick Slone with IRTEC, a mining industry engineering firm.

He said with "the new mining that we do now, we actually put all the 'wall' [with trees] back. So everything we do is remining."

Environmental groups, meanwhile, had been running television ads supporting McDonald's bill.

The Republican-controlled panel with the help of at least one Democrat moved ahead with Floyd's motion, which then passed. The Senate version wassponsored by Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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