NC5 Investigates Strip Mining In Tennessee - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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NC5 Investigates Strip Mining In Tennessee

The price of coal is skyrocketing, and that means mining companies are flocking to Tennessee.

One of the most controversial types of mining involves strip mining. 

NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Ben Hall has discovered where it's happening in Tennessee and why a wildlife area that taxpayers paid $40 million to protect is in danger.

Times are changing in Elk Valley.

David Beaty and his family live at the base of Tennessee's largest mountain top mining site.

"Every evening you can hear a blast.  Sometimes you can feel it," Beaty said.

Beaty lives in Campbell County near Zeb Mountain. 

"To see the mountain tore up, you go places you used to go and its completely different now," he said.

Zeb Mountain is a site where companies use explosives to blast into mountains.  It's happening more and more in Tennessee.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates has identified nine current mines above 2,000 feet.  Four new permits are under review. They're north of Knoxville in Campbell, Claiborne and Anderson counties. 

But most surprising to some lawmakers is that coal companies are planning large-scale mountain top mining in a state wildlife area.

Taxpayers spent $40 million buying the land and the timber rights to the Sundquist Wildlife Management Area, but the state does not own the mineral rights.  Coal companies are planning extensive mountain top mining in the area.

Chris Irwin works with United Mountain Defense and tracks mountain top mining in Tennessee. 

"What I'm seeing in the field, it's accelerating.  It's happening faster and faster and faster," he said.

NewsChannel 5 took him up in Sky 5 over Campbell, Anderson and Claiborne counties to see the mountain top mining currently underway. 

"You're seeing massive amounts of clearcutting because first they clear cut and then they blow it up," he said.

Zeb Mountain in Campbell County covers more than 2,000 acres. 

"Now its just piles of rubble and these piles of rubble are going to be here forever.  You can see what looks like some of the slope is beginning to slide out," Irwin said.

The senior vice president of National Coal said skyrocketing coal prices now make it profitable to mine coal in Tennessee.  National Coal recently bought the mineral rights to most of the 74,000-acre Sundquist Wildlife Management Area, and some lawmakers are furious.

State Sen. Doug Jackson is fighting to ban most types of mountain top mining.

"That coal company has the audacity to purchase those mineral rights and come down here and plan to do mountain top removal?" Jackson said. "Every citizen of the state when they see your story they should shake their head."

But Dan Roling, who is president and CEO of National Coal, takes issue with the term mountain top removal.

"Don't paint the coal mining industry in Tennessee with a broad brush and say we're doing mountain top removal when we're not," Roling said.

National Coal calls it cross ridge mining.  It still involves blasting into mountains.  The company is fighting a bill that would ban most mountain top mining in the state.

Senior Vice President Charles Kite said, "We think mining in this area will be good for it."

National Coal said most of the areas it will mine have scars from the early days of mining. The company said it is required to restore the mountain sides where it mines.

Chuck Laine is executive director of FACTS, a group that supports mining. 

He said, "Old mining practices were abhorrent and I agree with them (environmentalists) on old practices, but over here you've got modern mining.  It cleans it up." 

Laine pointed to a reclaimed area with grass and small trees that he says was reclaimed more than five years ago.

But Chris Irwin doesn't buy that companies can reclaim the mountains.

From Sky 5 he commented on an area reclaimed by a coal company.

"There's nothing there. They can plant grass on it all they want.  It just makes it lipstick on a corpse compared to what was there before," Irwin said.

Even Beaty admits it's tough to speak out against coal mining in one of state's poorest counties.

"It's hard to tell them not to do it when you know it's taking care of people's families."

But he's also worried about the mountains.  Tennessee has a decision to make. What kind of mining its going to allow.

A bill that would ban most types of mountain top mining has already passed in a Senate committee, but it failed in the House. 

Environmentalists hope to revive the bill this session, but they may have to wait until next year.

Until then, the mining continues. Mining has started in some parts of the Sundquist Wildlife Refuge. This is a difficult issue because coal is so important in Tennessee.

Nearly 70 percent of the electricity generated in the state is from coal-fired power plants. And every year, the demand for coal grows.

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