MOUNTAINTOP REMOVAL: New Threat from an Old Industry in Tennessee

In the summer of 2004 Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM)—a grass roots organization with over 2000 members concerned with social, economic and environmental justice—organized a 400-mile canoe trip from the coalfields of east Tennessee to the state capitol in Nashville. The purpose of the trip was to ferry a bottle of polluted water from a stream that issues from a mountaintop removal mining site down the Cumberland River and give it to Governor Phil Bredesen. Our "message in a bottle" was this: mountaintop removal mining forever changes the landscape and destroys our streams and we want it stopped. Right now we have only four such mining projects ongoing in Tennessee, but we have identified more than 100 other potential sites that could suffer the same consequences. Mountain top removal mines threaten the health and security of those who live both near them and downstream. We have made a commitment to maintain a strong presence at all levels of government involved in permitting or regulating mining activities until these destructive practices are under control.

In Campbell County, Tennessee—where I live—the Zeb Mountain mine has been operating since July 2003. Before this permit was granted many of the people who live near the mine expressed their concerns to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. Several suggested that the project area was large, the issues complex, and that a full environmental impact study should be conducted. OSMRE responded to our concerns by granting the permit. To date, the mine has had a number of problems:

SOCM members caught the mine operator building an illegal pond outside the project boundary, and a cessation order was issued by OSM.

The mine's operators have received several violations for illegal blasting. One recent blast was so strong that it caused nails in a section of drywall in a house under construction to pop loose.

A 1,000-foot section of haul road collapsed causing large amounts of sediment to run into a stream. The mine operator received several citations for pollution, and eventually was issued a Commissioner's Order from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), which required that he clean up this stream before extending operations into any other watersheds. The mess made by the mine operator was so complex that it took mining engineers, OSM, TDEC, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers several months to figure out how to clean it up and to formulate a drainage control plan that will work on the steep mountain slopes. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service warned that if the stream was not cleaned up soon, the blackside dace—a small, federally listed fish that lives downstream from the mine—would likely suffer. Two years later we are still waiting for mitigation of the damage, and we recently learned that the operator might be wanting to raise the elevation of the Dan Branch drainage by 20 feet in order to deal with the problem.

The sad thing is that people who live in the area, many whose families have lived in these mountains for several generations, predicted that the original drainage control plan would not work. The mountains here are much too steep for these destructive mining practices. The permits should never have been issued in the first place.

While coal mining in eastern Tennessee reached its peak in the early '70's, we are seeing renewed interest in extraction of remaining coal deposits by mountaintop removal and cross-ridge mining methods. The project area on Zeb Mountain is around 2,000 acres—mines of this size or larger have been predicted as mining rebounds in Appalachia. The federal government's own studies document, with solid scientific evidence, the threats to human, forest, water and wildlife resources posed by these mining practices.[i] Some government scientists are reluctant to speak out about their concerns for fear of reprisal from an administration that has dismantled many of the laws[ii] that might have protected us from the effects of mountain top removal mining.

On the other side of the smokestack, so to speak, is the problem of waste disposal from coal-burning power plants. Arsenic, mercury, chromium, lead, selenium and boron are just a few of the toxins found in coal ash, boiler cleaning waste and sludge from air emission scrubbers at these power plants. Regulation of the disposal of nearly 130 million tons of this toxic waste varies from state to state, and while the EPA promised to draft federal regulations in 2000, they have yet to deliver.

In the meantime, much of this waste is being dumped into landfills, storage ponds and old strip mines. As a result, many of these toxic substances are showing up in both surface and groundwater near the disposal sites. This is of tremendous concern since these toxins are known to cause cancer, reproductive problems and deformities in humans. It seems likely that we now will face clean-up challenges of heroic proportions for those disposal sites that already operate without adequate protections in place.

Many of the arguments in favor of mountaintop removal mining just don't hold up. Current mining and reclamation technology is not adequate for all geographic conditions, for example in the steep terrain of the Appalachians in east Tennessee. Neither is the willingness of mine operators to follow the law equal throughout the industry, thus the damages such as those I described at the Zeb Mountain mine are more of the rule than the exception. The mine operator frequently impacts the local community in ways that are not figured into the coal production costs. We would challenge the notion that coal is a cheap energy source. Many of the costs are absorbed by communities and governments around these mines and don't include the price exacted from citizens living near the mines who pay with increased health risks, loss of safety and security in their own homes, and sometimes with loss of life. Neither do these mines bring hoped for economic security. Experience here and in other states such as Kentucky and West Virginia shows that these destructive mining methods result in just a few highly specialized jobs for which many local people are not qualified. Few of these jobs go to women or anyone with physical limitations. Mine operators often hire more experienced people from outside the local area. U.S. Department of Energy statistics show that while coal production from 1928 to 1998 rose from less than 600 million tons to over 10 billion tons, the number of people employed in coal mining dropped from over 700,000 to less than 100,000. Mountaintop removal mining also destroys resources that might sustain a different type of activity and development, for example, tourism and outdoor recreation.

A poll in a West Virginia prior to the 2004 elections showed that two out of three voters are against mountain top removal and 56% of the voters say they would not support a candidate who would weaken mountain top mining laws.[iii] If you have traveled in mined areas of West Virginia lately and don't understand why people there would feel this way, you probably had your eyes closed. The message we get from history and more recently from the Bush administration is that our country is willing to sacrifice the health and security of its citizens in Appalachia to sustain the myth of coal as a cheap fuel and of coal mining as key to energy independence and economic security.

We in the coalfields of Appalachia are the canaries in the 21st century coalmines, and we're saying that mountaintop removal, cross-ridge mining, and the storage and disposition of solid coal waste is a hazard to our health and safety. From the point of view of those who have to live near a mine, it is a threat to homeland security far greater than any from overseas.

[i] See Mountaintop Mining/Valley Fill Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, available online at 

[ii] Warrick, Joby. August 17, 2004. Appalachia Is Paying Price for White House Rule Change. p. A01. Washington Post

[iii]07/19/2004. Analyst Says Survey Results Say A lot. METRO NEWS, THE VOICE OF WEST VIRIGINIA.