Bills seek state takeover of coal mining regulation, reversing Gov. Alexander decision 30 years ago

Almost 30 years after Tennessee state government turned oversight of coal mining within its borders to the federal government, two bills have been filed in the Legislature to reverse a decision made by Lamar Alexander as governor.

Apparently by coincidence, there are actually two new legislative efforts to authorize the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) to oversee issuance of permits for coal mining and followup inspections of operations rather than the federal Office of Surface Mining (OSM).
One has been initiated by the Tennessee Mining Association, which represents the coal industry in Tennessee.

Chuck Laine, lobbyist for the association, says OSM takes three to four years to process a permit application, a lag time that that is stifling coal production in Tennessee and sending mining jobs to other states such as Kentucky, where the state-run coal oversight operation takes no more than a year – typically less — to act.

The other was initiated by state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who is running against Alexander in the U.S. Senate primary. Carr says he first learned about the state’s delegation of coal-mining oversight to the federal government while traveling in East Tennessee’s coal-mining counties as a candidate.
Carr says he believes Alexander’s action in 1984 is an example of the then-governor’s willingness to surrender state rights to the federal government and an “attack on coal” that continues today in his U.S. Senate service. Carr said he introduced his bill (HB1832) to rectify a situation wherein “Lamar was acting more like an Obama Democrat than a conservative Republican.”

Alexander spokesmen declined to directly address Carr’s comments or Alexander’s current position on moving oversight of the coal industry from federal to state authorities. As a senator, Alexander has consistently avoided taking a position on most state-level issues in the past, saying the state “can have only one governor at a time.”

The current governor, Bill Haslam, said he is aware of the proposal and willing to hear more about it, his primary concern being the cost to state government. Laine and Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, sponsor of the industry bill, said coal mining companies will address that concern with a voluntary “assessment” paid for each ton of coal mined in the state that will cover any new cost to the state – roughly estimated by Powers to be about $400,000 to $500,000 per year.

In an email, an Alexander spokesman did offer an explanation for Alexander’s position when he was governor:

“In the 1980s, the federal government was continually second guessing state inspectors, creating a bureaucratic nightmare. Then-Governor Alexander recommended, and the state Legislature agreed, that if the federal government wouldn’t stop interfering with state decision-making, Tennessee would turn it back over to the federal government, which state leaders did.”

A review of some media reports from the time indicates there was considerable controversy over the matter and many conflicting opinions – some coal industry spokesmen, for example, contending that the state’s regulations were more burdensome than the federal regulations; others questioning that proposition with environmentalist groups similarly conflicted.

In separate interviews, Laine and Powers said they were unaware of Carr’s bill until after it was filed. Carr, in turn, said he was unaware of the industry initiative when he filed the bill, with Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, as Senate sponsor. All said they agreed on the objective and would work together for passage, though Powers and Laine stressed that they did not want to be involved in a political campaign.

The industry bill is still a work in progress, said Laine. The measure currently filed with Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, as Senate sponsor (SB1998), is called a “caption bill” in legislative lingo – basically, a placeholder with details to be filled in later. The deadline for filing a bill this year is Feb. 5. By filing a placeholder “caption bill” now, proponents reserve a position now, but can rewrite the measure via amendment to completely revise the measure after the filing deadline. The general outlines of the industry bill, however, are clear and a final version will be introduced soon, Powers and Laine said.

Laine said Tennessee is currently the only coal-producing state in the nation that allows OSM to oversee permitting operations – though the state of Washington has federal oversight on Indian reservations.

Tennessee currently is producing about 1.2 million tons of coal annually, Laine said. Mine operators typically plan three or four years in advance for various complex regulatory reasons, he said, and state mine operators are currently in a position where OSM delays mean that current permits are expiring with no new permits approved.

The upshot, Laine said, is that companies are giving up on Tennessee and moving to neighboring states – especially Kentucky, which is close to the state’s leading coal-producing counties of Claiborne, Campbell and Scott. The industry thus faces loss of existing jobs – more than 1,000, he estimated – and loses the potential of adding at least that many more new jobs in rural areas that already face high unemployment.

“They (OSM) have only issued one permit in the last four years,” said Powers. “We really feel that TDEC can turn those permits around in a year or less.”

Laine said that preliminary projections are that the state’s current 1.2 million tons of coal production annually could increase to five million tons with state oversight instead of federal. There would be a corresponding and dramatic increase in jobs and in funding for county governments where coal is mined. Current state law requires miners to pay $1 per ton in “severance taxes” to the county where coal is mined, with the money earmarked to require half be spent on education and half on road improvements.

Powers said the final bill will assure there is no cost to the state. Preliminary figures indicated, he said, that an “assessment” of 20 cents per ton of coal mined would cover TDEC’s cost of overseeing the permitting process. Federal law actually includes an incentive for a state takeover, Powers said, and the start-up cost in the first year could be covered 100 percent by federal funds. That would decrease in following years incrementally until the federal government would, after five years, still be covering 50 percent of the cost permanently, he said.

A TDEC spokeswoman said the department – like Haslam – is evaluating the idea of a state takeover and has no position at this time.

In recent legislative sessions, the primary dispute on coal matters has been over efforts by environmentalists to enact a bill prohibiting so-called “mountaintop removal” strip mining of coal – defeated on a regular basis in recent years.

Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, sponsor of the “mountaintop removal” bill, said she was “highly skeptical” of the idea of transferring coal-mining oversight from the federal government to state government, but would not take a definitive position until seeing all the details of the legislation.
Carr said Alexander’s support as a senator for “Obama’s war on coal” is exemplified by Alexander being one of only two Republicans to vote against a resolution condemning the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Utility MACT rule,” which required stricter standards for emissions by coal-fired electricity generation.

An Alexander spokesman pointed out the senator’s news release on his vote on that resolution, while declining further comment.

The news release quotes Alexander as saying he supports the EPA rule “because healthier air means better jobs for Tennesseans—every one of Tennessee’s major metropolitan areas is struggling to meet standards that govern whether industries can acquire the air quality permits to locate here.”

Says Alexander in the news release from two years ago:

“This rule requires utilities in other states to install the same pollution controls that TVA already is installing on its coal-fired power plants. TVA alone can’t clean up our air. Tennessee is bordered by more states than any other state. We are surrounded by our neighbors’ smokestacks. If we want more Nissan and Volkswagen plants, we will have to stop dirty air from blowing into Tennessee.”