A Mountain of Controversy

New coal mining regulations could harm the Big South Fork.

By Scott Kirkwood

It’s the easiest way to get at a seam of coal, and it’s often the cheapest. It’s called mountaintop removal, and it’s exactly what it sounds like.

For ages, the most common way to get at coal was to dig a hole in the ground and send miners in to bring it back out. But in the 1970s, mining companies discovered it was often easier to simply rip off the top of the mountain, like scraping icing off a birthday cake. The method can be especially efficient in Tennessee, where seams of coal might be only two or three feet thick, making traditional deep mines a less profitable option.

What do you do with a leftover mountaintop? In Appalachia, the answer often involves filling adjacent valleys and burying any streams by literally leveling the landscape—and that’s about to become a more common practice. A 1983 federal regulation created a 100-foot buffer zone around all streams to prevent the most damaging impacts of such “valley fills.” But in April 2007, the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) began reevaluating the rule’s  interpretation, and in December, the agency effectively removed its teeth. Barring direct intervention from Congress or the Obama Administration, the state of Tennessee will soon be the only thing standing between mining companies and the health of the Big South Fork National River, home to 12 endangered species, including mussels found nowhere else on the planet.

But can a little dirt really do that much damage? “You’re not just putting dirt in a stream,” says Bart Melton, program analyst in NPCA’s Southeast regional office. “You’re essentially burying the stream and altering the way the watershed functions, and that could increase the likelihood of landslides, pour more sediment in the rivers, destroy wildlife habitat, and threaten drinking water downstream. A 100-foot buffer may not seem like much, but even if the coal around it is mined, the buffer provides a necessary and essential element for protecting a stream’s health.”

Fortunately, the governor of Tennessee and officials with the state’s environmental agency agree. NPCA is working with a broad spectrum of allies, including hunting and fishing groups and Christian conservation organizations, to turn local sentiment into a state law that would replace the now-defunct federal regulation.

“We’re fortunate that the Big South Fork was set aside for protection 35 years ago,” says Dawn Coppock, legislative director of the Lundquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship (LEAF), a Christian organization that focuses on conservation issues. “With its steep slopes, crystal waters, and scenic vistas, the region really has a wildness about it and a remoteness that is hard to find in eastern Tennessee, even in the Smokies. And to allow its waters to be fouled by a shortsighted, unnecessary type of mining that could harm Tennessee’s tourism industry just isn’t sound policy.”

“Nothing about protecting streams, endangered species, and the drinking water supply is anti-coal,” says Melton. “We have a long fight on our hands, but policymakers in Tennessee have an opportunity to ensure that the unique resources of the park will be here for generations to come.”

This article appears in the Winter 2009 issue.

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