Conservationists seek to restrict surface coal mining in vital area of Cumberland Mountains

Date:   November 16, 2005
Contact:   Deborah Murray, SELC Senior Attorney, 434-977-4090
Vanessa Morel, NPCA, 865-329-2424, ext 24
Joe Schiller, Warioto Chapter, National Audubon Society, 931-221-7249

Conservationists seek to restrict surface coal mining in vital area of Cumberland Mountains

Knoxville, Tenn. - Two conservation groups filed a petition with the federal Office of Surface Mining today detailing the wide-ranging impacts of surface coal mining to water quality, forest habitat, ecological restoration efforts, recreational value of public lands, and public safety in a broad area of the Cumberland Mountains where mining is on the rise.

Under federal mining law, the petition would compel the agency to conduct a comprehensive study of the groups’ allegations. In their 90-page petition, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Warioto Chapter of the National Audubon Society argue that the law requires the agency to designate the area off-limits to surface mining due to the severe and largely irreversible environmental threats. The Southern Environmental Law Center is representing the two groups.

The petition area includes the New River watershed, covering parts of Scott, Campbell, Anderson and Morgan counties. The watershed is the primary drainage into the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a major natural and economic feature in the region. The petition area also includes certain lands in the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area, Sundquist Wildlife Management Area (East) and Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area that are documented as prime forest habitat for Cerulean warbler, a migratory songbird whose fast decline makes it a species of special concern.

Surface coal mining is increasing dramatically in Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains. In mountaintop removal and cross-ridge mining, coal companies clear cut the forests and blast apart the mountain ridges to get at the underlying coal seams. The practice sends tons of sediment into streams and rivers, induces acid drainage and weakens the slopes, leading to future landslides. The resulting topography renders the return of native forests virtually impossible.

“We are asking the Office of Surface Mining to be reasonably cautious, to look before it leaps, before it issues so many mining permits that this area is damaged beyond repair,” says Vanessa Morel, Program Analyst with the National Parks Conservation Association. “There are examples on the ground that illustrate the problems with mining in this unstable, steep terrain as well as the failures of enforcement and reclamation. We will only have this opportunity once.”

The petition covers more area – a total of 284,000 acres - and more issues than most previous petitions filed with the OSM due to the high concentration and quality of natural resources at stake, the level of coal mining anticipated, and the growing understanding of the scope of environmental damage associated with surface mining.

“The law clearly recognizes that there are some places where surface mining is simply too hard on the land, on the natural resources, and should therefore be prohibited,” said Deborah Murray, Senior Attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, who drafted the petition. “We firmly believe this area of the Cumberland Plateau is one of those places.”

“Birds like the Cerulean warbler are indicators for the health and well-being of our environment. It’s vitally important that we protect the forest habitat of the Cerulean and other important species,” said Joe Schiller, President of the Warioto Chapter of the National Audubon Society. He added that bird watching is among the fastest-growing outdoor activities among Americans, and accounts for a substantial portion of tourism revenue for many local economies.

Under a provision of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA), citizens can petition the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) to designate lands unsuitable where certain conditions are met. Among other things, the conservation groups’ petition states that:

== Current reclamation practices as required by SMCRA are ineffective in the petition area (the New River watershed and the specified Cerulean warbler habitat areas) primarily due to the steep slopes; therefore the law requires OSM to designate the area as unsuitable for surface mining. Surface mining destabilizes slopes, potentially causing catastrophic landslides that impair natural resources and threaten public safety. The groups point to the notorious 25-acre landslide of a reclaimed strip mine in Scott County in January 2005, and the series of slides in recent years at the Zeb Mountain Mine.
== Surface mining would impair the waterways and water quality of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, which are recognized by Congress and the state of Tennessee as valuable natural systems. Tennessee has designated the Big South Fork River as an Outstanding National Resource Water.
== Surface mining would adversely impact vital habitat for endangered, threatened and critical species, including five mussel species, five fish species and seven migratory songbird species.
== Reforestation of Cerulean warbler habitat areas is not typically required, nor is it feasible due to the poor soil and other conditions at surface mining sites after active mining operations cease.
== Mining would also impair the esthetic and recreational value of the Big South Fork NRRA, as well as the Cumberland Trail State Scenic Trail and Park, Frozen Head State Natural Area and Park, and the Royal Blue WMA and Sundquist WMA. These public lands are managed for a variety of recreation uses – including hunting, hiking and boating – that would be diminished by surface mining operations and the long-term environmental impacts.

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