The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Mountaintop Removal Meets Fresh Resistance in Tennessee*

by Kari Lydersen

A revival of the controversial strip-mining practice that decimates landscapes known for their lush, majestic peaks is stirring ire and protest from locals in Tennessee's North Cumberland Mountains.

*A correction was appended to this feature article after initial publication.

Appalachian Tennessee; Nov. 15, 2005 – Paloma Galindo’s chihuahua skittered ahead of her, jumping back in surprise when a small cascade of loose rocks and dirt at the Egan Mountain mine in Tennessee tumbled down a jagged cliff created by the type of mountaintop removal mining that has left the mountains of Appalachia increasingly scarred, pocked and leveled.

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Galindo, an environmental activist with the group United Mountain Defense who has come to know the mines of Tennessee like the back of her hand, gestured toward a scrub-covered hillock at the end of a gently sloping meadow, a "reclaimed" strip mine that was once home to lush forest.

"It looks like it’s back to its original shape, but it acts like a big sponge," she said of the hillside, which was reconstructed out of rubble after part of the mountain was blasted away to get at coal seams. "It’s all broken rock slapped on there and compacted with no hydrological system, so it will soak up water, and five years down the line you’ll get massive landslides. Then the mining company will have already bonded out so the cost will fall on the taxpayers."

During a flyover of Egan and other mines in eastern Tennessee and Kentucky the next day, landslides of the type Galindo was describing were visible: gashes of jumbled gray boulders, upended trees and debris cutting through the autumn colors.

From the air, the North Cumberland Mountains in Tennessee look like the coat of a once-beautiful animal with a debilitating case of mange. Mountaintops are laced with strangely shaped bald spots, where trees give way to brushy undergrowth. Giant hunks have been bitten out of the mountainsides, revealing sores of crumbling sand, broken rock and black tar. Once-neat layers of sediment are visibly torn asunder, cascading down hillsides. Strange top-hat-shaped protrusions of land rise up sharply. For miles and miles, it looks as if someone took a giant potato peeler to the side of the range.

In order to reach coal seams in the mountains, mining companies literally blast off their tops. The debris is pushed

overflight of Zeb Mountain mining project

[PHOTO: Overflight of Zeb Mountain in Campbell County, Tenn., displays cyclical practice called "cross-ridge" mining. (Photo courtesy United Mountain Defense. Overflight provided by SouthWings.)]

And six days a week, fleets of enormous dump trucks and bulldozers crawl along the open wounds of the earth, drilling, blasting and extracting truckloads of shiny black coal.

Even after decades of drilling, digging and blasting, Appalachia is still rich in coal – 28.5 billion tons of it according to a 1998 US Department of Energy. And coal, in the eyes of the Bush administration, is the energy source of the future. The White House’s energy plan designates the black rock as one of the country’s main sources of fuel, and calls for 1,300 new coal-burning power plants by 2020. The relative efficiency of strip mining versus the more traditional "deep" mining means that coal companies can harvest more coal faster and with fewer workers.

Activists view Tennessee as an important proving ground in the fight against mountaintop removal since the pace of destruction is accelerating rapidly and there are still more state environmental protections in place in Tennessee than in neighboring states.

But activists in Appalachia say the environmental and cultural price of powering the country with coal – especially when it is mined through techniques like mountaintop removal – is too high.

The harshest effects of mountaintop removal can be viewed in West Virginia, where mining companies have decapitated roughly 300,000 acres of mountains and filled in about 1,000 miles of streams with rubble. Mountaintop removal is also practiced in Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

This fall the US Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies released an environmental impact statement (EIS) on the effects of mountaintop removal mining. The statement, part of the settlement of a lawsuit filed in West Virginia in 1998, catalogued sundry negative effects of the practice but concluded that better cooperation between federal agencies and a better permitting process could lessen the harm. Environmentalists called the EIS a green light for coal companies to proceed with mountaintop removal.

In Tennessee, the process is officially called "contour mining," when the sides of a mountain are excavated, or "cross-ridge mining," when the peak is shaved right off. They do not call it "mountaintop removal" because Tennessee law mandates the mountain must be "reclaimed" and rubble cleared from the streambeds. However, environmentalists say the process and effects are virtually the same.

In order to reach coal seams in the mountains, mining companies literally blast off their tops. The debris is pushed down the mountainside, creating a "valley fill" at the base, or stored in large piles where it can deposit minerals and ooze toxic metals and compounds into rivers and groundwater.

Unless enough local residents demand a public hearing, new mine proposals go through rapidly without any public notification or comment.

The EPA website dispassionately describes the hazards of this process: "The impact of mountaintop removal on nearby communities is devastating. Dynamite blasts needed to splinter rock strata are so strong they crack the foundations and walls of houses. Mining dries up an average of 100 wells a year and contaminates water in others. In many coalfield communities, the purity and availability of drinking water are keen concerns."

In Tennessee, strip mining became common in the 1970s but tapered off in the 1980s due to dropping coal prices. However, in the last few years, mountaintop removal mining has quietly resumed with vigor in Tennessee, mainly in the eastern part of the state near the Kentucky border.

Tennessee has always been a relatively minor player on the national coal scene; the US Office of Surface Mining (OSM) reports that in 1997, the most recent published numbers, it produced less than a third of a percent of the nation’s coal, with 5,021 acres of active surface mining and 58 acres of underground mining. Though coal extraction has picked up considerably since then, the state still lags far behind nearby West Virginia and Kentucky in production.

However, activists view Tennessee as an important proving ground in the fight against mountaintop removal since the pace of destruction is accelerating rapidly and there are still more state environmental protections in place in Tennessee than in neighboring states.

In 1977 President Carter signed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMRCA), which mandated that mine sites be restored and remediated. States have implemented the law in different ways, and it allows for exemptions, which are frequently granted.

In West Virginia, little is done to restore sites. In Tennessee, companies are supposed to restore the site to their original form, a task critics say is unachievable. Instead of restoring the mountains to their prior, tree-covered lushness, they leave gently sloped, grassy hillsides and golf-course-like plateaus. The rubble from blasting is packed back onto the mountain, compacted to the point that it is hard for trees to take root, and sprayed with "hydro-seed," a chalky, green mixture of seeds producing hardy but not necessarily native grasses and shrubs that quickly sprout on the reformed land.

post-reclamation view of strip-mined hillside
{PHOTO: This area of the egan mountain mine project has been "reclaimed." The weed is coated with "hydroseed" formula. © Kari Lydersen 2005}

Because of the heavy compaction and the destruction of topsoil, trees and diverse forest systems are unlikely to regenerate on the patches for a long time. Instead of rain filtering naturally through the mountain sediment, it sheets off the compacted hillsides causing flooding and landslides.

Mountaintop removal mining is also dangerous both for workers in the blast areas and for surrounding communities. In August 2004 in Wise County, Virginia, a three-year-old named Jeremy Davidson was crushed to death when a half-ton boulder dislodged from a strip mine, tumbled down a hillside and crashed into his family’s home in the middle of the night. A&G Coal Company, which argued the accident was an "act of God," was fined only $15,000 by the state mining agency.

In Tennessee, workers at a Perkins restaurant along I-75 still remember the accident in 1993 when "flyrock" – the debris flung by the blasting process – shot out 225 feet from the interstate and killed sixteen-year-old Brian Agujar, a tourist from Louisiana.

Responsibility for that incident was borne by Sugar Ridge Coal Co. Already about $8 million in debt, Sugar Ridge was found in violation of its permit for simultaneously blasting two rounds of explosives in one hole, instead of separately in two holes as required. A special permit restriction had been placed on the company by OSM the previous year because of earlier flyrock violations. The worker detonating the blast was later sentenced to five months in prison and the company fined $550,000, but since it went bankrupt after the accident, the family was never able to collect.

Several groups of residents here, shocked to realize the extent of the strip mining going on in their area, have been working doggedly to stop the mines wherever possible and slow down the process.

One front in that battle has opened around water pollution. The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC), charged with regulating the state’s water quality, must issue permits for mining operations that could affect state waterways. Activists are pressuring the TDEC to impose stricter water protections.

Currently if a mine is polluting the water, TDEC can fine them and demand a remediation process, according to a TDEC spokesperson, but it cannot actually issue a stop-work order. State legislation (SB 0142, HB 1328) that could be voted on next year would empower the Tennessee government to put stop-work orders on polluting operations.

Meanwhile, opponents are pressing TDEC and Governor Phil Bredesen to ban mountaintop removal altogether on the grounds that it violates the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act of 1977.

Acknowledging the economic realities of the area, the groups trying to stop mountaintop removal generally say they are not opposed to deep mining, which has its own drawbacks but makes much less of an environmental impact and also creates more jobs than mountaintop removal.

Unless enough local residents demand a public hearing, new mine proposals go through rapidly without any public notification or comment. So local activists – every one a volunteer – regularly visit the OSM office to find out what permit applications are on the table, write lengthy comments and demand public hearings.

The activists say that by challenging permits, they have slowed down the mining process considerably and caused the size of several mines to be reduced.

post-reclamation view of strip-mined hillside
{PHOTO: Coal blast holes penetrate the face of Egan Mountain. © Kari Lydersen 2005}

But companies have found ways to circumvent regulation. They construct mines consecutively, creating huge projects that are treated legally as a series of small efforts and thereby subject to less scrutiny. This is the modern-day version of an infamous Tennessee practice banned in 1987 known as the "string of pearls," in which mining companies develop a long string of strip mines of only a few acres each to avoid needing a permit.

The modern practice, now called "segmentation," has essentially the same effect on an even larger scale. For example, from the air, Galindo pointed out the Cooper Ridge mine, run by Apollo Fuels Ltd., a subsidiary of ConocoPhillips. The Cooper Ridge project stretches for miles, snaking around the sides and tops of many peaks. Even though there are no breaks in the slice taken out of the range, it is legally multiple mines. ConocoPhillips did not return a request for comment on this story.

"If you look at it on a permit-by-permit basis, it’s all mines less than 5,000 acres," said Galindo. "But they’re all connected to each other, so it’s really one massive mine. And each additional mine makes it easier to get more permits, because they say it isn’t a pristine mountain; it’s already impacted, so what’s one more mine?"

Last summer, United Mountain Defense held a month-long program called Mountain Justice Summer to give activists from around the country a crash course in the politics and effects of mountaintop removal. They toured mine sites, attended public hearings about proposed permits and engaged in direct action. Some protesters used locking devices to create a barricade at the entrance to Zeb Mountain, where National Coal Corporation, founded in 2003, is now mining up to 2,000 acres. Authorities arrested eleven protesters.

The company’s website says National Coal "easily identified and quickly capitalized on opportunities within the South Appalachian region," so "the company is riding high on new demand for coal." National Coal spokesman Charles Kite declined to comment in detail, saying only that the company has received "a lot of harassment" over Zeb Mountain.

Mountain Justice Summer participants also conducted "listening projects," visiting the homes of community members around Zeb Mountain to hear their thoughts on the situation. They said most were hesitant to speak about mining, and attributed the silence to the long history of violence and intimidation against people who challenge coal companies in Appalachia. Activists also said there is a long-standing acceptance of and pride in mining work.

"When we were doing the listening projects, the older people had all these stories about how life was shaped by the coal mining companies," Galindo said. "If a company would stop mining for a while, whole towns that had been thriving with theaters and everything would become ghost towns in a matter of months. Then a new company would open up, and people would move to that spot. There’s a long history of being impacted by coal; this isn’t new for them."

coal pile

[PHOTO: A coal pile at the Egan Mountain mine, operated by Mountainside Coal Co. © Kari Lydersen 2005]

CORRECTION

Major Change:

The mountains addressed in this story are technically part of the North Cumberland Mountains, not the Smoky Mountains as our original headline and body text stated. As best we can tell, the reporter's impression that it was the Smoky Mountains derived from the fact that the Smokies are also in Tennessee and that there is a peak in the North Cumberland range called Smoky Mountain. Editors failed to verify the name of the range.

 | Change Posted November 18, 2005 at 09:44 AM EST

Special thanks to SouthWings, a nonprofit group of conservationist pilots, graciously provided The NewStandard with a flyover of the area.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.


Kari Lydersen is a contributing journalist.

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