Tennessee Scenic Vistas Act On Hold Again

The Scenic Vistas Protection Act receives opposition from unlikely quarters — the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce

Down but not out, the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act—aimed at prohibiting mountaintop removal coal mining in Tennessee—is on ice for yet another year. As reported, the bill was due for a vote on March 31 in the House Environment subcommittee. Rather than subject the bill to the potentially fatal effects of an unsuccessful vote, Rep. Bill Dunn, the bill's sponsor, chose to take the bill "off notice," or remove it from consideration.

"If you force people to vote before they're ready and they vote no, it's harder to turn them around the next time," Dunn explained last week. "Then they have to justify voting no one time and yes the next. We have several members of that committee who I think are possible yes-es. It's just a matter of them getting comfortable with what this will do. They want to know if there are any unintended consequences."

Speaking of consequences, it turns out that one of the bill's opponents is none other than the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce; in particular, the Chamber's office of Environmental Affairs. It's a surprising turn even if all you wish to consider is "commerce." According to most recent figures, tourism in Tennessee was worth $14.2 billion in 2007, and coal was worth $67 million in 2006. Much of Tennessee's tourism is scenery-driven. So why would you let a proven under-earner jeopardize your cash cow?

"With coal mining," says Dunn, "once the coal is gone the jobs are gone. With tourism, that can go on for ages. There is a business aspect to preserving the scenery and beauty of East Tennessee."

According to the Tennessee Chamber's website, here's what its office of Environmental Affairs is for: "The Chamber will be a vital party to regulatory planning, development, promulgation, implementation, and enforcement…. The Chamber will be a key participant in the debate and adoption of laws governing business and the environment." In mid-March, that office seemingly contradicted all that when it declared its stance against the Scenic Vistas Protection Act.

"It was an effort to ban mountaintop removal coal mining in the state of Tennessee," says Wayne Scharber, the Chamber's Vice President of Environmental Affairs, of the bill. "What's the resource we're talking about here? That's coal, which Tennessee can produce to help meet our energy needs for industry and the citizens of Tennessee into the years in the future. We feel that anything that would hamper that or prevent that or bring that to a screeching halt is wrong for the state of Tennessee."

Readers familiar with the bill's wording are aware that the bill, if passed as written, would not bring coal mining to a screeching halt in Tennessee. People unfamiliar with the bill, who received a March 18 e-mail from Scharber—including the members of the Environment subcommittee—might well think otherwise, or at least be confused.

For instance, the bill endeavors to prohibit, "Surface coal operations, or resulting waste, fill or in stream treatment within 100 feet of any water of the state. However, the commissioner could issue or renew a permit, certification, or variance for operations to improve the quality of streams previously disturbed by mining."

Scharber's e-mail told representatives and others that the bill said this: "The bill prohibits surface coal mining within 100 feet of ‘waters of the state.' No exceptions are provided. As written it would prohibit all mining."

One must hopefully presume that lawmakers refer to primary texts when making decisions. Still, Scharber exerted influence and cast doubt on the bill's intended purpose. And he misrepresented the bill's contents.

"I thought it was wildly exaggerating what the bill would do," says Dunn, who received Scharber's e-mail. "That the intent was to stop any new permit in coal mining. Obviously that was never the intention of the bill or the proponents of the bill. I thought it was trying to use scare tactics, which is often used in politics.

"I have to say that the local Chamber of Commerce never contacted me opposed to it. This was just the state chamber. I think the people in East Tennessee recognize the value of mountains and tourism."

Only time will tell if East Tennesseans recognize the value of the state chamber of commerce. Dunn remains hopeful for the bill, and has plans to align it with Gov. Bredesen's environmental initiatives.

"I think the key will be to get the governor involved," says Dunn. "I understand he's interested in it, he'd just like to know that there's some support in the subcommittee."

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