Mountain Low

Big Coal crushes the proposed Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act

Dawn Coppock tried her best to slip out of the room unnoticed Wednesday, April 2, after the House Environment Subcommittee killed off the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act by a vote of 5-3. She thought she'd made a clean getaway, but a reporter from the Nashville Tennessean caught her just before she could duck into the restroom. He reported that she'd left in tears. She wishes he hadn't.

The usually-composed Coppock, a Knoxville adoption lawyer whose name is routinely found on lists of the state's best attorneys, had drafted the TSVA to save the state's mountains by banning the practice of blasting off the mountaintops, scraping out the coal, and leaving behind a pile of mountain-shaped rubble after the coal is extracted. She, her colleagues from the faith-based Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF), and their allies in the environmental community had been shepherding the bill through the General Assembly since January and were cautiously optimistic. They rewrote the bill to cure a flaw found by the state Attorney General, put together enough votes to pass it in the Senate, and secured the support of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Federation and Gov. Phil Bredesen.

But they'd been hearing for weeks that the coal industry and its business allies were planning to throttle the bill in the subcommittee, which is packed with legislators who routinely vote for business interests. It's a David-and-Goliath story that caught the attention of media around the state.

The volunteer lobbyists were up against some of the most powerful forces on Capitol Hill, but they thought they had lined up enough votes because Frank Buck (D-Dowelltown), who is not a member of the subcommittee but has ex-officio voting rights as the chairman of the full Conservation and Environment Committee, agreed to come to the early-morning subcommittee meeting and vote for the bill. However, things didn't turn out as they had planned.

"I went in there thinking it was too close to call," Coppock says. "We were thinking that George Fraley (D-Winchester) was going to vote for us, because he'd told our House sponsor, Mike McDonald (D-Portland), that he would. But, bless his heart, he's elderly and he got an awful lot of pressure at the last minute. John Tidwell (D-New Johnsonville) had said he would abstain—but he didn't. And David Hawk (R-Greeneville) told us he was still thinking about it, but stepped out of the room when the vote was taken. If Fraley had voted like he said he would and Tidwell abstained like he said he would, it was in Hawk's hands," Coppock says. She had reason to hope because Hawk had told his hometown newspaper, the Greeneville Sun, that he was still "listening to all sides."

"There wasn't a way to put together an adequate number of votes without Chairman Frank Buck, who argued that a bill this important needs to go before the full committee. I think he knew that it was likely to do better before the full committee, and so did Mike Kernell (D-Memphis)," Coppock says. Buck, Kernell, and Brenda Gilmore (D-Nashville) were the yes votes.

Voting against the bill were Fraley, Tidwell, William Baird (R-Jacksboro), Joe McCord (R-Maryville), and Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains).

Later on Wednesday, Coppock and Don Barger, Southeastern Regional Director for the National Parks Conservation Association, presented their case to the Senate Environment, Conservation and Tourism Committee, where they faced a big hurdle: Chairman Tommy Kilby (D-Wartburg), who carried the mail for Big Coal, saying that the bill would put miners out of work in his district.

Kilby was picking up on a theme sounded by Daniel A. Roling, president and CEO of National Coal, who said that his company would move out of state if the bill were to pass. Roling said that the company planned to double its current in-state payroll of 234. Coppock countered that this number is miniscule compared to more than 200,000 tourism jobs in Tennessee.

Kilby said that any bill killed in the House would not come to a vote in his committee. Senate sponsor Raymond Finney (R-Maryville) requested a week's postponement and was bolstered by Doug Jackson (D-Dickson), who argued that a three-member majority in a House subcommittee should not dictate Senate actions. Kilby said he would confer with the Senate clerk and get back to them.

"The Senate committee is 7-2 in favor (of the bill)," Coppock says. "We've had the votes in the Senate for about five weeks, but Kilby's been blocking it. We've got five senators on the committee who are co-sponsors of the bill."

So is there a glimmer of hope this session?

"Probably not," Coppock says. "But there could be political consequences for Kilby because the fact that he went out of his way to support mountaintop coal removal will be on record."

For now, Goliath has won.