Move for state takeover of coal mining oversight dead for the year

An effort to have Tennessee coal mining regulated by the state rather than the federal government was abandoned for the year Wednesday, leaving environmentalists pleased and industry advocates vowing to resume their quest in 2015.

Sen. Ken Yager, R-Harriman, sponsor of the legislation drafted by the Tennessee Mining Association, announced the move in the last scheduled meeting of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Chuck Laine, lobbyist for the mining association, said the drafting of a final version of the bill had become “extremely complicated” in trying to assure that all federal requirements for a state takeover of coal regulation were met along with those of state government officials.

The bill would have turned coal mine permitting and inspections over to a new agency within the state Department of Environment and Conservation. The regulatory functions have been handled by the federal Office of Surface Mining since 1984, when the state gave up “primacy” in mining oversight during the administration of former Gov. Lamar Alexander.

“We haven’t had primacy for 30 years. It’s worth waiting one more year to make sure we get it right,” said Laine.

Stewart Clifton, lobbyist for Tennessee Conservation Voters, said that stopping the measure had become the top environmental issue of the current legislative session because passage would have meant “costing taxpayers millions of dollars more, possibly for less oversight” of the coal industry.

He said Tennessee gave up control in 1984 because state regulation was too costly and federal regulation was more efficient and effective. Those considerations still apply, he said.

“This is a great day,” Clifton said.

The move came a day after six environmental groups sent a letter to Gov. Bill Haslam urging him to oppose the bill. Haslam has been neutral on the bill, though expressing concern about any increase in costs for the state. The bill called for a new tax of 20 cents per ton on coal mined in Tennessee with the goal of the levy being to cover any new state costs.

The groups opposing the bill were Statewide Organization for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), Tennessee Clean Water Network, Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning, TN Environmental Council, Tennessee Scenic Rivers Association and the Sierra Club.

Also dying in the Senate committee Tuesday were bills that would have banned or restricted so-called “mountaintop removal” coal mining in Tennessee. Similar legislation has failed repeatedly in past legislative sessions, supported by environmentalists and opposed by the coal industry.

Laine expressed confidence the primacy bill could win approval next year.