Driving on Highway 90 from Campbell to Claiborne County, as it winds through the valley next to Clear Fork, with the bright September sun dappling your windshield as the leafy trees above begin to change their color, it's hard not to think you're in one of the most beautiful places in Tennessee. Going up and down the Appalachian ridges on the winding road, the scenic vistas and picturesque terrain look like an ideal destination for mountaintop resorts.
Then you look closer—not just at the rotting buildings covered with kudzu and the rusted-out cars on the side of the road, the most visible signifiers of the extreme poverty in the area—but at the mountaintops themselves. One ridgetop seems to sharply plunge down, as if a giant took a bite out of it. When you get closer to another, you see there's only one lone row of trees at the top. A third seems to have almost no trees at all.
These mutilated landscapes are mostly the result of coal mining. Although logging also happens in the area, it's the mines you see cutting a wide swath in the topography when studying satellite imagery on Google Earth.
According to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, there are 20 permitted coal mines in Tennessee, although only four or five are actively mining, given the current low price of coal. Sixty percent of those mines are in Campbell and Claiborne Counties. (The rest are in Anderson, Cumberland, and Fentress Counties.) It's been this way for over a century—coal is a way of life around here, and it's hard to find a person who doesn't have some kind of connection to the industry, even if he never worked in the mines himself.
Yet despite the poverty in the region, and the desperate need for jobs, coal isn't king of everyone's hearts the way it once was. As two companies look to move forward with new mines that could consume over 3,000 acres, some longtime residents are teaming with environmental activists to fight the permits. A handful of temporary jobs, they say, isn't worth the permanent destruction of their mountains and streams.
"How much coal do these mountains really got in 'em?" says Russell Worley, one of a few natives of the area who have found themselves in the unlikely position of opposing the new mines. "They been doin' it for this long—maybe it's time to just give something a break. Our state don't produce that much coal anyway."
There's not a whole lot in Eagan, Tenn.—there's so little, fact, it's not even officially an incorporated town. But back in the heyday of mining, it was a different story.
At one point last century, the Clear Fork Valley had some 30,000-odd residents, most employed by (or family members of someone employed by) Knoxville's Blue Diamond Coal Company. Now the entire valley, which includes the neighboring town of Clairfield, has around 3,000 residents.
This pattern isn't confined to Claiborne County, of course. In 1920, coal mining employed over 750,000 people in America. In 2011, the most recent year for which data was available, that number was 91,611. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the number will continue to fall, estimating only 77,500 people will be employed in coal mining in 2020.
These numbers don't mean that coal production is down—far from it. In fact, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2011 the country produced almost 1.1 billion tons of coal, double the production in the early 1950s. Most of that was sold to power companies to fill Americans' energy-guzzling needs, but about 10 percent was exported to other countries.
The reason coal companies can produce so much with so few people is twofold. Mechanization has taken the place of most of the jobs, just like in every industry—who needs men to dig out a mine shaft when a bulldozer can do it much faster? But the increase in surface mining has also been a huge shift. Companies can dig up more coal, more cheaply, with fewer workers in a surface mine, and they can dig out coal seams that are too narrow for an underground mine. In 1949, only 122 million tons of coal came from surface mines, about one-fourth of the nation's production at the time. Now, 749 million tons, or 70 percent of the coal produced in the country, comes from surface mines.
But only 1.5 million tons of coal were produced in Tennessee, and at a much slower production rate than in the rest of the county—an average of 1.44 ton produced each hour compared to 5.55 nationally and 2.38 in other parts of Appalachia. And according to the EIA, only 505 people were employed in coal mining jobs in Tennessee in 2011, down from 546 the year before. As coal prices have fallen since then, the numbers are likely even lower today. (The EIA is not releasing its annual report this year due to budget cuts from sequestration.)
The National Mining Association has slightly rosier figures, estimating 1,450 people were directly employed in coal mining jobs in 2011 in Tennessee, with another 8,250 jobs indirectly supported by the industry. (It should be noted, though, that the NMA's methodology for these numbers is somewhat unclear.)
There's no way to tell how many of these jobs, whether 500 or 1,500, belong to Tennesseans. The mines in Claiborne and Campbell counties are just a few short miles from the Kentucky border, and people crisscross both state lines looking for whatever work they can get. As of 2011, the poverty rate of Campbell County was 28.8 percent. In Claiborne County, it's 26.5 percent. Those are the fifth and 10th highest rates in the state, respectively, and almost double the national poverty rate of 15.9 percent. (The statewide rate is 18.4 percent.)
So you would think that the prospect of two new mines, one promising 43 jobs and one promising 72 jobs with an estimated additional 252 jobs for associated non-mining employment, would be welcome in the community. And for many people, they are, like Cecilia King, who's run a small grocery store in Campbell County just near the Claiborne County line for 43 years.
"It couldn't make it any more worse because it's about as low as it can get right now," King says. "Really, there's not any jobs in the area. … There used to be a lot of people that lived in this area. Not anymore."
But people like Worley are skeptical.
"This [coal mining] is all this place has ever knew. That's why people are here, there're still ones that have been left over. We're still here. My grandfather was a coal miner. He was a deep miner. That's what brought him here. Now, not too many locals get hired on," Worley says. "And then, when the job leaves, the job's gone. And the place ain't nothing like it used to be. And then they put a gate up and you can't even go up there and dig ginseng or do anything."
On a sunny afternoon, Worley takes me out around Claiborne County, along with his friend Vickie Terry. Worley, 38, grew up in the Clear Fork Valley and has lived there most of his life, except for a few years in Georgia. When he moved back, he says, "There was a lot of land that didn't look the same. Even the creeks didn't look the same."
Worley's homestead had also changed.
"Where I grew up, we had a well, a spring. Go down there and get spring water and carry it, 'cause we didn't have no running water in the house," Worley recalls. "Then when they come in and blew the mountain off on the other side of the holler, over there across from the spring, up on the ridge—I can go back there now and there ain't no water in that spring. It's just dirt."
Terry, 55, has lived in Eagan since 1998, but she's been a regular visitor since she was 24. Her husband's a native to the area but had to leave in order to find work when the mines started shutting down.
"It devastated him, he said," Terry says.
When they moved back to the region, Terry says she began noticing blasts on the ridge across from her home—blasts that supposedly weren't happening, since they weren't supposed to be permitted. That's when she began to reseach the environmental impacts of mining.
Terry's a grandmotherly sort with an artistic streak. She's got an outdoor kitchen and giant garden outside her hillside home. Assorted wind chimes dangle off her porch where a cat stares warily as outsiders cuddle her new kittens. Dogs are everywhere—mostly Chihuahuas and ChiDobies, a designer hybrid dog that Terry used to breed and sell.
"How many dogs do you have?" I ask Terry.
"I quit counting," she replies. (She's not joking.)
We head away from Eagan on Highway 90, go through Clairfield, and turn right down by Valley Creek. Then we head up a ridge, or at least as far up as my non-four-wheel-drive vehicle will go.
"This has already been stripped and stripped and stripped," Worley says, pointing to the land around us.
We're standing on the site of a former mine, one Worley thinks used to be called the Silver Creek mine. There are weeds and brush everywhere, the kind that come up to your knees and make walking off the road an exercise in filling your socks with burrs. At first I only notice the spectacular view, but then I look down. We're standing on gravel. A mountaintop of bits of shale, limestone, and other rocks.
"This where they come in and stripped the coal—blasted, blowed up, whatever. They come in, made roads, dug the coal out, pushed it over, made roads, run over. It's compacted real hard. Don't like to grow nothin' but weeds, what you see. They plant trees, but they really ain't got much hope because the ground's so compacted," Worley says.
Worley looks like the stereotypical Appalachian man of a certain age. He's got a scruffy beard, and he's wearing a camo ball cap and an old Pink Floyd T-shirt. He likes to talk about hunting and fishing. "I ain't no tree-hugger," Worley says.
But Worley's also a man of the mountains. He knows where to go to find morels in the spring and where to get ginseng in the fall. And he's worried about what more mining will do to the woods he's been hunting and foraging in for decades.
"You definitely lose more woodland. [The animals] gotta have cover, they gotta have food, throughout the year. They ain't got the cover for bed or safety."
"They're out in the open—nowhere to hide," Terry adds. "There's nowhere to go hunting."
"There's roads now, where you go and there's a gate. There's a gate. There's a gate," Worley says, "You've been going up there all your life. Ain't bothering nothing. And now you can't go up there."
Eighty percent of the land in the area belongs to outside corporations, according to Terry. "Mountains are supposed to be free," she says. "These mountains are people's homes. They might not own them, but they were raised up in them."
Terry says that last year on a walk, fishing, with her husband down Clear Fork, they noticed the exceptional clarity of the water. Then, when they got to where it merges with Tackett Creek, they noticed a change.
"The water was grayish, and you couldn't see through it, and the rocks—everything covered with gray algae. It's so slippery. I mean, you can't even walk in that creek. I can't believe they say that's clean. I mean, it's cleaner than it might have been years ago. That's what gets me, too," Terry says. "It took 40, 50 years to heal. It's just beginning to heal."
We drive back down the mountain and head back south, towards the Kopper Glo coal-washing plant. Kopper Glo has been trying to get permits for two new mines in Claiborne County. Although the company withdrew its pollutant discharge permit application for the 578-acre Clear Fork Surface Mine on King Mountain near Clairfield in August after the Tennessee Clean Water Network and several other environmental groups appealed TDEC's notice of decision, it has recently resubmitted its application. The company is also in the process of getting permits for the 1,496-acre Cooper Ridge mine near Valley Creek. Kopper Glo did not return repeated calls for comment.
Standing across the road from the processing facility, we don't see many employees, although it is nearing the end of the workday. One of the men shoveling coal gives us a wave. A giant conveyor belt brings the unprocessed coal into the facility. Another conveyor belt takes it out after it's been cleaned and dumps it in piles, awaiting pick up by trucks or trains. The wet coal sparkles in the late afternoon sun.
We can see the water that's been used to clean the coal gushing out of the plant, but we can't see where it's going—a retaining pond, most likely. A stream runs right next to the facility. The water is clear, but the rocks are all covered in a chalky dust.
Driving back up the road, Worley gestures out the window.
"There used to be churches back here. They made the churches come out," Worley says. "I'm 38 years old, but I can remember when there was people living back here. There was the Hatfields, there were the Garretts, there was the Lowes, there was the Halls. Now there ain't nothing."
On Oct. 24, TDEC held a hearing about Kentucky-based Appolo Fuels' proposed Sterling and Strays Surface Mine 1, a 1,088-acre mine that would be a few miles south of Eagan. The hearing was in Knoxville, not Claiborne County. Still, out of over 20 speakers, not a single person spoke in favor of the mine. Worley and Terry made the drive to publicly note their opposition.
"It looks like a bomb already. We don't need another mine," Worley told officials.
Stephanie Matheny of TCWN has a long list of items that concern her about the mine. She thinks the proposed wetlands-mitigation plan is insufficient. She's worried that runoff from the mine won't be treated at a high enough level to protect the federally threatened Blackside Dace, a type of minnow, which lives in some of the creeks in the mine's watershed. And she's worried that Appolo's history of violations—83 over a five-year period in Tennessee and Kentucky—doesn't bode well for any additional restrictions the TDEC or the EPA or the Office of Surface Mining or the Army Corps of Engineers or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service might place on the mine.
"We're more concerned with the long-term water-quality impacts," Matheny says. "They're cumulative, especially with the other proposed mines in the area. … The impacts linger after the mining is done."
Worley says that's his biggest problem with the Appolo mine.
"We don't really want somebody in there with that many violations, you know. We don't want the mountain made more of a mess than it's gonna be, just for the cause of getting coal. If they can regulate the way it's supposed to be, I don't see why there'd really be a problem," Worley says. "But they ain't gonna enforce the regulations. You don't never see nobody up here."
In a 2010 editorial in the Tennessean, Chuck Laine, the president of the Tennessee Mining Association, wrote, "At a time when surface coal mining is coming under intense scrutiny from all sides, Tennesseans should know our state's coal mining operations are something we can all be proud of. Contrary to statements by opponents, Tennessee does not and cannot conduct mountaintop removal coal mining."
Laine goes on to add, "It is important to know that mining in the mountains is not the same as mountaintop removal. Mountaintop removal is a mining method conducted in other Appalachian states that allows permanent removal of the mountaintop. The overburden, or material generated, from the site is then placed in adjacent valleys that contain streams. The result is a parcel of completely flat land on the top of the mountain. These so-called ‘mountaintop removal and valley fill' sites are prohibited by law in Tennessee."
Yet in 2008, Appolo Fuels was threatened with a lawsuit for doing just that, in Claiborne County—and without having the Army Corps of Engineers permits to do so. According to reporting on the story by West Virginia Public Broadcasting, Appolo was accused of filling at least two hollows and approximately 2,000 feet of streams without a Corps permit, in violation of the Clean Water Act. TDEC documents showed Appolo illegally disturbed 20 streams at its Jellico mine site. The company agreed to pay $120,000 to the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation in order for the suit to be dropped.
The law was changed in 2009 to require a 100-foot buffer zone on streams, but a more comprehensive ban on MTR mining, the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
In a phone interview, Laine says more regulation isn't needed, and Appolo's past missteps don't mean much.
"Appolo is a responsible mining company that's been mining in our area for a long time," Laine says. "Coal mining is one of the most heavily regulated industries. … There are so many rules and regulations, you can't operate without doing something wrong. It's normal to rack up a number of fines over several years. A lot of them are probably just paperwork violations."
But documentation of Appolo's recent violations shows all sorts of issues, including illegal use of explosives, improper sediment control, drainage issues, erosion issues, improper construction, air-quality problems, and repeatedly operating without a permit.
"I mean, 83 violations? On like one or two mine sites? And they're trying to get another one?" Worley says.
Appolo did not return repeated calls for comment.
We're all aware that we all depend on coal, at least to a certain extent. The majority of utility companies in the country provide electricity that is at least partially generated by coal-fired power plants; TVA is no exception. As Laine points out, coal does bring in tax dollars, both to the state and the impoverished counties that desperately need the funds. He says if the new Claiborne mines open, it'll mean a lot to the region.
"We pay a tax that's split between the schools and the roads," Laine says. "And mining creates good jobs, with an average salary of $50,000."
Laine also says that modern mining operations have spent a lot of time cleaning up the damage done before environmental regulations existed. "We've taken six streams off the impaired list," Laine says. "We're reintroducing the American chestnut. And we're at work on recreating habitat for birds and the black bear. … We now have 400 elk up there, because we reintroduced them."
But not everyone thinks that's enough. Carol Judy, 64, works at the Clearfork Community Institute in Eagan and has lived in the area on and off since the late 1960s, permanently since 1984. (The Institute, it should be noted, has no official position on mining.)
"Ever since the '50s, when the outmigration started, people have needed jobs. This isn't just about strip mining, this is a systemic issue," Judy says. "We need other kinds of jobs."
She thinks a more holistic regional approach to encouraging education and developing sustainable jobs is what the area needs to defeat its long-standing poverty. She also thinks that it can't happen when mining companies own most of the land in the county.
"I don't think the question is about mining. I think the question is, is industry ready to do it correctly," Judy says. "It's scale—when 80 percent of your resources are under control of an empire, if you look at history, that's not a good balance. … If companies are going to quarrel about following regulations and even doing something a little bit different, that's like inviting a cancer into your body, and who does that willingly?"
Still, Terry, Worley, and Judy are a definite minority in the area, at least when it comes to speaking out.
"A lot of people feel like it ain't no use trying to speak out. It probably ain't. They feel like the coal people still got the power, they got the money, so why would I even bother," Worley says. "Like I said, this a coal-town place. This is all it's known. It remembers the history of getting run out so they could push you somewhere else so they could come in and strip that part, take some people's land because it had coal."
I ask other people in the area if they support the new mines, and no one will speak on the record, even people in favor of the mines. At a bar in Jellico in Campbell County, I am thrown out after the owner, a former truck-driver for a coal-mining company, hears me trying to get people's opinions. Richard Reamsnyder, 70, follows me outside to talk.
"Most of these guys around here, they're all good guys," Reamsnyder says. "And we need work around here." Taking a sip from the Busch tallboy in his hand, he continues. "What really hurts this area is dynamite. They've messed up the water supply, your hair turns orange."
He says he's in favor of all the new mines, as long as the companies don't destroy the water.
"But," Reamsnyder sighs, "I don't think they care. They just don't."
Matheny says mining in Tennessee just doesn't make sense the way it used to.
"There isn't a great deal of economic justification for coal mining in Tennessee," Matheny says. "We rank 21st in the country in production. We feel like we're paying a high economic price when there's not a lot of economic benefit."
TDEC and OSM are continuing to take public comment on the Sterling and Strays Surface Mine 1 until Oct. 13, although it's unclear at this point whether the federal agency will extend its comment period due to the government shutdown. Yet whatever happens with that mine, the coal industry is still poised to grow in the state: TDEC confirms that two new proposed underground mines in Rhea and Sequatchie counties are likely to have their permits approved soon, and six more permits are on the table, in addition to the Claiborne ones. Even the state is considering allowing mining in the 82,000-acre Catoosa Wildlife Management Area on the Cumberland Plateau.
Jonathon Burr of TDEC says those numbers are misleading. "One might see the note below about 11 pending coal permits that may be issued in the next few months [and] get the mistaken impression that coal mining is on the rise in TN. This impression should not be conveyed—coal mining has been on the decline in TN for many years, and that trend continues," Burr writes in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, environmental groups plan on battling the surface mines in Claiborne County for as long as they can, hoping for a victory like the legal decision that shut down National Coal's Zeb Mountain mine in Campbell County over the summer.
"I think that there might be a little bit more work for some people, but in the long run there ain't gonna be nothin' there. There ain't gonna be good for nothin'," Worley says. "All it's gonna be fit for is blackberries and rattlesnakes."