A bill to ban “mountaintop removal” coal mining in Tennessee was killed for the sixth consecutive year Wednesday without any discussion in the Senate but with an impassioned exchange in a House committee.
“Tennessee should be a leader in protecting our mountain way of life, not for sale to the highest bidder,” Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, told the House Agriculture Subcommittee after acknowledging the bill (HB43) was dead for the year.
Johnson also said that as surface coal mining has increased in Tennessee, “We’ve watched our mining jobs plummet and our miners be replaced by machines.” And she referred to reports that a Chinese company has a major interest in a Campbell County mining company.
“As reported in today’s Wall Street Journal, Tennessee has also become the first state in America to permit a Chinese company to blast apart our mountains and take our coal. Not only are the eyes of Tennessee on us, but the world is watching,” she said.
Officially, the bill was deferred until 2014 in the House panel after being killed without a vote in the Senate Energy and Natural Resource Committee earlier in the day. But Johnson was allowed to speak on it and her remarks brought a rejoinder from Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden.
Holt told Johnson the committee would vote to “kill the bill right now if that’s what you want,” then criticized her “singling out” the coal industry for use of new technology and for Chinese investment.
“Instead of having 900 people out in a hole somewhere digging out coal.. is it wrong for them to adopt a new technology that can use machines in place of human beings in those dangerous situations? ,” Holt said.
“If we limited all investment from China in Tennessee it would be damaging to our economy,” he said.
There was no discussion at all in the Senate committee beyond a brief description of the bill by the sponsor, Sen. Lowe Finney, D-Jackson. No member of the panel would even make the necessary motion for its passage in the committee.
The committee has seven Republicans and two Democratic members. Both Democrats, Sens. Charlotte Burks of Monterey and Ophelia Ford of Memphis, were absent when the bill came up.
“It was disconcerting that the committee wouldn’t even talk about it,” said Finney afterwards, contending that this year’s version of the “Scenic Vistas Act” was different than in prior years and sought to “strike a balance” between environmental and coal mining interests.
One difference, he said, is that the this year’s bill exempts the re-mining of areas designated as abandoned mines and all ongoing operations.
But Chuck Laine, lobbyist for the Tennessee Mining Association, told reporters later that there is no real difference between the current version and earlier bills.
“This bill was intended to do away with coal mining in Tennessee,” he said. “It was veiled, but that’s what it was.”
About 50 coal miners from East Tennessee were on hand to show opposition to the measure. So was Campbell County Mayor William Baird, who told reporters about that coal mining provides about 300 to 350 jobs directly in his county – plus another hundred or more in related businesses – and that number may double in the coming year with three new mining operations expected to open.
J.W. Randolph, director of Appalachian Voices, and Ann League of Knoxville, who formerly lived near the Zeb Mountain mining operation in Campbell County, were on hand to testify in support of the bill. They never got a chance when the measure died for lack of a motion.
League told reporters that water in her well near the Elk Valley community turned “bright orange” after mining operations began on Zeb Mountain.
Randolph told reporters after the Senate move that Tennesseans were seeing “a lot of cowardice” in elected officials.
“The senators chose to side with the coal industry whose political influence has long outlasted its ability to grow jobs in our state or protect the health and well-being of citizens in the coal region,” Randolph said in an emailed statement.