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.
The Tennessee Conservative Union is launching a statewide media campaign in support of a bill banning “mountaintop removal” coal mining, warning the Volunteer State has “become the first state in America to permit a communist Chinese company to destroy our mountains.” From Andy Sher’s report: “The Tennessee Conservative Union is 100 percent Pro-Coal, but our organization does not support destroying our mountain heritage,” TCU Chairman Lloyd Daugherty “Mountaintop removal mining kills jobs because it takes fewer workers to blow up a mountain.”
The ad alludes to a Wall Street Journal MarketWatch article from last May which revealed that China-based Guizhou Gouchuang Energy Holdings Group said it had raised $616 million in a private placement to be used mainly to acquire and develop Triple H Coal Company in Jacksboro, Tenn.
That would make Guizhou Gouchuang the first Chinese company to invest in coal in America, MarketWatch reported.
It also quoted an unnamed top executive at Shenhua Group, a wholly state-owned Chinese company, saying Tennessee coal mines were attracting great interest in China as energy companies look at U.S. coal mines.
— Note: TCU’s video ad on the issue is HERE.
The news release is below.
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.
A House subcommittee voted 6-4 to kill legislation banning so-called “mountaintop removal” coal mining in Tennessee for the year, instead calling for another study of the issue.
The committee move came over the protests of Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, who pleaded for a straight vote on the bill (HB291).
Mountaintop removal bills have been “delayed, delayed and delayed” since 2008 with repeated studies, he said, and as a “legislative courtesty” lawmakers should allow a vote in his final months in office. McDonald has announced he will not seek reelection.
But Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, said he made the motion because he is undecided about the legislation, being against “blowing the tops off of mountains” but also for “property rights.”
“We want to get it right,” said Floyd.
He said the move was not aimed at stalling, but to have a “true summer study” by the subcommittee on the merits of the idea.
The subcommittee vote comes after the Senate recently postponed a floor vote on the bill over objections of the sponsor there, Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere. Now that the bill cannot pass the House,
Conservationists try varied tactics to ban practice Conservationists supporting a bill to prohibit mountaintop removal in Tennessee are launching a second round of television ads, but this time photos of ridges in Tennessee that have been blown off are included.
More from Anne Paine’s report: The first ad that the Tennessee Conservation Voters launched showed pictures from other states. Opponents of the bill, called the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act, had slammed the campaign as deceptive, saying that mountaintop removal doesn’t happen in the Volunteer State. Any ridges sheared off are replaced as much as possible to the original contours, they countered.
Relatively little coal mining is done in Tennessee compared with other states, including Kentucky and West Virginia. The legislation, House Bill 0291, is on today’s agenda of the House Conservation Subcommittee.
…. The companion bill in the Senate was amended in a way that supporters said gutted it, so that little if any change would occur in current mountaintop mining practices. That one, Senate Bill 0577, is on the agenda to be heard by the full Senate on Monday. The issue is the focus of a wide coalition of conservation, environmental and church groups. Note: TCV’s news release on the ads is below.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration won’t weigh in on mountaintop mining legislation that has put state GOP lawmakers and a pro-environment group at odds, reports the Kingsport Times-News. “We’re sort of neutral on that. … We defer to the legislature on the (mountaintop mining) original bill or amendment,” Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) Commissioner Robert Martineau Jr. said of the situation at the Tennessee Environmental Conference on Wednesday.
The bill as introduced by state Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, would prohibit TDEC from issuing or renewing a water quality permit that would allow surface coal mining operations to alter any ridge line above 2,000 feet. But GOP state Sen. Mike Bell of Riceville tacked on an amendment adopting the U.S. Department of Interior’s definition of mountaintop removal mining.
GOP lawmakers, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville, believe the Bell amendment bans mountaintop mining in Tennessee.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Senate has voted to delay for three weeks a vote on a proposal to halt mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee.
The decision came despite the objections of the bill’s sponsor, Democratic Sen. Eric Stewart of Winchester, who called for a vote Monday evening.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris of Collierville said the delay is aimed at finding a compromise on the measure, and not an effort to kill the bill by holding it until relevant committees finish their business for the year.
The measure seeks to deny permits that would alter any ridgeline more than 2,000 above sea level. Stewart said he opposes a Republican amendment attached that would continue to permit current practices.
— Note: The vote to defer the bill over Stewart’s protest was along party lines, Republicans wanting to delay it; Democrats against. The bill (SB577) is up Tuesday in a House subcommittee where it has died in years past.
In his weekly column, Robert Houk criticizes an amendment to legislation on so-called “mountaintop removal” coal mining. A popular mantra among many Republicans has been, “Drill, baby, drill!” Now we are hearing: “Blast, baby, blast!”
…Don’t be fooled by the clever semantics that are being used to distract from the real purpose of the amendment. The truth is the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act has been hijacked by Big Coal to allow mining companies to blast off the tops of mountains in Tennessee.
One local environmentalist told me last week the amendment would allow mining companies to remove mountaintops as long as ‘they pile the rubble back on to re-form the original contours.”
This is a practice known in the industry as cross ridge mining, and as long as valley fill is not involved then it is not classified as “mountaintop removal.”
Whatever you want to call it, the end results are the same. Dawn Coppock, the legislative director for LEAF (Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship), said the amended bill repeats a federal law on what coal companies can do with “overburden,” which she calls a “sad industry pseudonym” for what is left of a mountain after it is blasted apart.
If the amended Tennessee Scenic Vistas act becomes law, environmentalists fear the measure will spell doom for ridgelines in Claiborne, Campbell and Anderson counties, where 98 percent of all coal in Tennessee is mined.
,,,,Not surprisingly, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey praised the amendment as a sensible compromise that protects Tennessee’s mountains while allowing mining companies to continue to do business in this state.
“After years of controversy on this issue, I believe we have finally reached a point that all honest stakeholders in this process can be proud of,” said Ramsey, who has collected more than $195,000 in campaign contributions from coal companies in recent years.
Not so fast. Some of those “stakeholders” say Ramsey is not being honest when he says all interested parties have had an equal place at the negotiation table. They say the coal mining industry has clearly purchased a seat at the head of the table.
Meanwhile, environmental groups weren’t allowed anywhere near the bargaining table.
“He (Ramsey) appears to be is calling the advocates of protecting our ridgelines, like LEAF, dishonest,” Coppock said. “This is ironic in light of the circumstances.”
During his weekly meeting with reporters Thursday, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey read from a blog post by Jeff Woods on the amendment to the so-called “mountaintop removal” bill and proceeded to criticize Woods in particular and the media in general for coverage of the issue.
Woods thereupon posted a rebuttal that includes a chunk of Ramsey’s commentary: “I had one environmental group that said, ‘Well, we can start getting our coal from China.’ They actually said that to me. The ultimate goal for them is to keep coal mining out of the state,” Ramsey said. “The bill that we passed yesterday outlaws mountaintop removal mining in the state of Tennessee, period. I think there’s just a general philosophy of the press on this issue. Democrats good, Republicans bad. From day one, I’ve said I’m against this. There’s no trick.”
Extolling his environmental credentials, Ramsey went on to discuss his love of hunting and fishing and “diesel therapy,” which he said he receives by prowling the bucolic countryside on weekends astride his fume-belching tractor. It turns out he loves the smell of diesel in the morning.
You can tell I get a little fired up on this. I get a little upset that we do honestly, honestly from the bottom of my heart try to do what we think is the right thing to stop this and there’s not one ounce of coverage basically because I’m a Republican and I can’t do good on this issue. I’m one of the most outdoorsy kind of people you’d ever want to meet. Every weekend, I am outdoors all weekend. I’m a big hunter. I love fishing. Well, I don’t fish that much but I like it. I hunt a lot. I can’t wait until tomorrow to be on my tractor riding around. I call it diesel therapy. I want to protect the environment. There’s no better protector of the environment than farmers. They realize if it’s gone, they’re gone. You have to be a member of the Sierra Club to be pro-environment. That is absolutely, positively ridiculous.
Note: Related prior posts HERE (Ramsey statement) and HERE (environmentalists’ take on the amendment)..
Statement to media from Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship:
LEAF is very disappointed with SB 577 as amended by the Senate Energy and Environment committee on Feb. 29, 2012.
The sponsor, Mike Bell and the Lt. Governor both say the amended bill simply codifies current practice. Current practice includes blasting off Tennessee’s ridgelines. For five years, citizens of this state have asked the legislature just to put a buffer zone around the highest elevation ridgelines. Now they have passed a bill which they admit does not change the status quo and call that a “point all honest stakeholders can be proud of.” The bill was not discussed or shared in advance of the committee meeting with any stakeholder other than industry. Industry does seem to be proud of the bill as now written.
As to the substance of the bill:
LEAF must take exception with the claim that SB 577, as amended by the Bell Amendment #0137872, is a ban on mountaintop removal.
LEAF’s request to stop mountaintop removal, is not a shell game or semantics. We mean, do not let coal companies blow the top off mountains to get the coal out. LEAF is not working for a bill like the current amendment that relates to what happens after the mountain is blown up. We are concerned with the only time that matters for Tennessee’s virgin mountains, before the permit is issued.
The bill voted out of committee repeats federal law on what coal companies do with “overburden,” a sad industry pseudonym for the little pieces the mountain becomes after it has been blasted apart. LEAF is not working for a bill about where to put the little pieces. LEAF seeks and will continue to seek protection of the natural ridgelines.
The bill, as amended, says that there is no mountaintop removal so long as the coal industry molds the rubble into the “Approximate Original Contour.” The Northern Cumberland Plateau is not known for “Approximate Original Mountains.” It is known for some of the oldest and most beautiful mountains on this earth, molded not by engineers and bulldozers, but by the hands of God himself.
If a state has no mountaintop removal, it has no need to reaffirm federal law regarding molding rubble. On the floor, LEAF calls on the Senate to redeem this weak deception by voting for the bill as proposed by the sponsor, the bill that requires the coal companies to leave the original ridgelines on Tennessee’s mountains.
Legislative Director, LEAF