Legislation designed to prohibit “mountaintop removal” coal mining in Tennessee — killed in a House subcommittee for five consecutive years — is back for another try in 2013 with a new sponsor and a new committee to decide its fate.
The “Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act” (HB43) is the first bill filed by freshman Democratic Rep. Gloria Johnson of Knoxville, who serves on the 19-member Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee that will rule on the proposal under a committee realignment for 2013 by House Speaker Beth Harwell.
In past years, similar legislation always died in a subcommittee of the House Conservation and Environment Committee, which was abolished by Harwell with its responsibilities over environment-oriented bills assigned the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee. The latter committee also has an eight-member subcommittee — Johnson is not on the subcommittee — that will take the first action on the bill.
In 2012, the old subcommittee effectively killed the bill by referring it to “summer study” in a 6-4 vote. The panel never met to study or discuss the bill over the summer or fall and is now abolished.
The Senate companion bill did get out of committee for the first time in 2012 — after adoption of amendments opposed by supporters — but was never voted upon by the full Senate floor after the House bill was scuttled.
“There’s a new subcommittee, fresh eyes and new developments,” Johnson said in an interview Thursday. “I hope the chances are good. It’s the kind of bill that should have bipartisan support.
“I think we need to protect our mountains because tourism is a big employer in Tennessee — and there are other ways to get at the coal.”
But Chuck Laine, lobbyist for the Tennessee Mining Association, said he is confident the legislation will fail again.
Current Tennessee surface mining, he said, actually benefits the environment because most operations are re-mining areas that were damaged, then abandoned in past decades when reclamation of the land was not required. It is required now and today’s mine operations leave things better than before, he said.
“We go in and clean the stuff up,” he said.
Tennessee’s coal mining is also concentrated in counties where the jobs are needed and where tourism is not a major factor, Laine said, with most current mines operating in Campbell, Claiborne and Anderson counties, he said. The law, if passed, would also violate property rights of landowners who bought property with the value of coal seams in mind, he contended.
The bill was sponsored for five years in the House by former Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Gallatin, who did not seek re-election last fall.
In general, the bill has been opposed by Republicans and supported by Democrats, though there have been exceptions on both sides.