House Move Blasts Hopes to End Mountaintop Mining This Year

The combination of legislative pussyfooting and the use of an obscure procedure has all but killed prospects that a ban on mountaintop removal would pass the state Legislature this year.

As proposed, the TN Scenic Vistas Protection Act would prohibit altering or disturbing ridge lines above 2,000 feet for the purpose of surface mining. It would allow strip and underground mining to continue, but directly restrict mountaintop mining—a practice in which ridges of mountains are dynamited to reach thin coal seams near the surface, and which state Sen. Doug Jackson, the legislation's Senate sponsor, calls "the worst idea in mining people have conceived of."

But after unanimously passing an amendment to clarify the bill, the House Environment Subcommittee voted Tuesday to adjourn before actually voting on the bill itself. Rep. Joe McCord, of Maryville, proposed the unusual maneuver, and the vote for adjournment fell six to four, along the same lines some had predicted a final vote against the bill would fall.

"Clearly it was an attempt to kill the bill," says Rep. Mike McDonald, the legislation's sponsor. "It is highly irregular when someone makes an adjournment motion before you can vote on the bill." McDonald believes the bill is most likely dead for the year, although the Senate could revive the proposal if it so chose.

This bill has been a legislative and political hot potato this session, and the subcommittee's move this week is just the latest in a dance designed to avoid forcing any member to oppose or support outright a ban on mountaintop removal.

Originally, a vote in the Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee—where the bill lacked only one vote to advance—was to precede Tuesday's House subcommittee vote; it was then rescheduled, giving the House—where chances against passage were greater, and where many legislators were already on record opposing such a bill—the chance to kill it. Instead, the House subcommittee has left it in limbo, allowing those who voted for the amendment but against taking action on the bill the ability to claim they voted against mountaintop removal.

And since legislation requires committee approval from each chamber to advance, a lack of action in the House means legislators on the Senate committee—among them Knoxville's Jamie Woodson—are likely saved from taking a position on this divisive issue, too.

"The game is who has to kill it," says Dawn Coppock, legislative director of the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, a faith-based group lobbying to ban mountaintop removal in the state. "A lot of the members would just rather not vote at all."

Coppock says Woodson hasn't said whether she was for or against the legislation, and in a statement, Woodson confirmed she has not yet taken a position: "This is my first opportunity to vote on this considerable legislation, and I am listening to the debate very carefully. I believe we must be good stewards of our environment. We must also be sensitive to the job and energy needs of our citizens, especially in a time of great economic challenge. I am confident that we can achieve a reasoned and responsible balance."

That jobs argument falls flat with Jackson, a Democrat from Dickson, who has sponsored all three legislative attempts in as many years to ban mountaintop removal mining. "That's a method in Tennessee where the few jobs created are just too expensive," Jackson says.

In 2008, Jackson managed to pass the bill out of committee with a vote of 8-1 before it was halted in the House. The makeup of the Senate committee changed in 2009, and last year the legislation was not brought up for a vote because the necessary votes weren't there. Jackson says that through considerable lobbying efforts, coal companies, many from out of state, have succeeded thus far in pressuring the House to oppose a ban; like Coppock, he believes the Senate vote was delayed so that its members could avoid voting on this controversial issue during an election year.

According to Rob Perks, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council advocacy campaign, other states have attempted to ban mountaintop removal through more indirect means, such as preventing utilities from purchasing coal obtained through that type of mining. But Tennessee, he says, could become the first state in the region to go after this practice directly, "and for that reason it's hugely significant and would be a powerful win."

Perks thinks Tennessee could succeed where others have failed because the state has few mines and mining jobs—only around 400—relative to nearby states like Kentucky and West Virginia. "The citizens of Tennessee seem to recognize, much more so than those other states, the value of the mountains intact," Perks says, mentioning East Tennessee's dependence on mountain tourism.

The Senate could resurrect the bill by passing it in committee next week. But the House's action allows it to avoid taking a vote at all. In essence, both bodies punted to one another.

While disappointed by the outcome this week, Coppock sees a silver lining in the fact that neither body wants to be on the record as supporting mountaintop removal. "It's kind of a success when there's enough pressure on them that they're afraid to vote ‘no'," Coppock says, "but it's a success for the coal companies that they're putting enough pressure on them that they're afraid to vote ‘yes.'"

McDonald is less sanguine about the move. "Progress would be when the bill passes out of the environment subcommittee and moves on to the full committee and passes out of that committee," McDonald says. "That's progress."