Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: Proposed mining ban should move forward

Posted on December 2, 2010

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar promptly moved forward on outgoing Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposal to ban mountaintop coal mining in much of the upper Cumberland Plateau.

Bredesen, a Democrat who couldn't run for reelection this year because of term limits, petitioned Salazar to prohibit surface mining for 600 feet on either side of ridge tops in the Royal Blue, Sundquist and New River units of the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Emory River Tract Conservation Easement.

Salazar's decision means the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSM) will perform a comprehensive environmental review of the area, much of which drains into the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

If OSM ultimately grants the petition, mountaintop coal mining, including the aesthetically unsightly and environmentally degrading practice of blasting off mountaintops and depositing the fill in valleys, would be banned in the area.

That's a laudable goal for Tennessee, which reaps much more of an economic gain from tourism and recreation than from coal mining.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander agrees. Recently he said that protecting ridge tops would allow for more opportunities for outdoor recreation and "attract job-creating tourist dollars."

Alexander, a Republican, finds himself aligned with the environmental advocacy group Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, formerly known as Save Our Cumberland Mountains, in opposing mountaintop mining. SOCM sees Bredesen's petition as a victory for environmental protection.

"SOCM commends Gov. Bredesen for a well-crafted petition that not only has so far passed muster, but contributes toward a healthy future for people, business and the environment in Tennessee," SOCM chairwoman Cathie Bird said in a news release. "This is an historical step that represents a turning point in coal production in Tennessee."

Alexander, who has long been an advocate of using energy sources that don't contribute to air pollution, met with Salazar recently to discuss the petition.

"I am pleased with Secretary Salazar's prompt and favorable decision on Gov. Bredesen's petition," Alexander said after the meeting. "The goal here is to protect Upper Cumberland ridge tops in which Tennessee taxpayers already own an interest."

Coal mining has dwindled over the years as an economic power in Tennessee. Mountaintop mining allows companies to economically access seams otherwise too small to mine near the tops of ridges.

The ban would bar mining companies from using the easiest and most destructive method of getting to the coal. It would not prevent them from using underground mines to get at the coal, though the underground mining of thin seams high on the ridges is more costly.

Recreation and tourism are more important industries, however. The attraction of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area and other parks in the Upper Cumberland region lies in their natural beauty and rugged terrain. Coal mining frequently results in water quality degradation and mountaintop removal scars the landscape.

We applaud Bredesen for seeking protection for the Upper Cumberland ridges, and encourage the OSM to consider the environmental and economic benefits of a mining ban for these ridge tops.