Knoxville News Sentinel: Editorial: Lawmakers again show disregard for scenic vistas

Posted on April 3, 2012

After five consecutive years, it really is a pity the Tennessee Legislature can't pass a bill protecting the state's wonderful scenic mountains from the ravages of mountaintop-removal mining for coal.

The state Senate tried to skirt any lengthy discussion about the topic by postponing a floor vote until this week. Then, last week, a House subcommittee killed the bill for the current year, sending the issue to a summer study group — also known as legislative Siberia. A majority on the House Conservation Subcommittee voted 6-4 to reject pleas from the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mike McDonald, D-Portland, for a straight up-or-down vote.

The idea for the summer study came from Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga, who said he opposed blowing the tops off of mountains but also respected private property rights. "We want to get it right," he said.

Floyd also said that he wanted the issue to have a thorough vetting during the summer, with the subcommittee hearing testimony from all interested parties. Good luck with that.

Summer study typically has involved shelving a controversial bill for a year to let it die quietly or wait for more favorable votes to accumulate. Little in the way of actual study gets done.

Mountaintop-removal mining for coal is a form of surface mining that blasts the tops off of mountains and ridgelines to make it easier and more efficient to search for coal. The earth and plant life that are not needed are pushed aside, all too often to creeks and tributaries on which people living in the area depend.

Federal law granting mining permits requires a reclamation plan, and mining companies have done a better job in recent years restoring earth and planting various trees and shrubs.

However, there is still the time from the initial blasts and damage to the surrounding area until reclamation takes place.

Getting it right for a number of Tennessee legislators means making the state law compatible with federal law, which the mining industry apparently finds favorable.

Nevertheless, the Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, is called the Scenic Vistas Protection Act for a good reason. It protects the mountains — which Tennesseans revere as a birthright and tourists traveling through the state love to see — from destruction.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who understands that bigger picture, sought to end mountaintop-removal mining a couple of years ago. The state's senior senator said he believed coal is essential to the nation's energy future, "but it is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops and streams to have enough coal."

Stewart emphasized the need to pass his state Senate measure, noting that, when his bill was first introduced, there were five mountains for which permits were issued for surface mining above 2,000 feet. Now there are 13.

Too many of Stewart's colleagues simply don't get it. We hope they will before those scenic vistas become moonscapes.