Is 'Clean Coal' Polluting Tennessee's Clean Water? - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

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Is 'Clean Coal' Polluting Tennessee's Clean Water?


A NewsChannel5 Investigation examines the environmental impact of mountain top mining. Coal companies use explosives to blast into mountains to get at the coal.

Our investigation reveals the controversial mining technique is damaging one of Tennessee's most precious resources - its water.

Johnny Lowe hears the blasts all the time. He lives in rural Claiborne County.

"Being a tree hugger?  No sir I'm not.  I'm for my community," said Lowe.

He's a farmer and former coal miner who has declared war on big coal companies.

"Tears come to my eyes.  I just look at what they're doing, but one man can't stop it," said Lowe.

From Sky5 HD you can see what mountain top mining looks like. Aerials show how crews cut into mountains and clear off the tops.

Johnny Lowe wanted to show us what it looks like from the ground.

"They don't want people knowing the damage they're doing," said Lowe.

He said coal company employees might get violent if they saw us, even on a public road.

"We're looking at what used to be a mountain, they tore it off," said Lowe.

Coal companies say it's not fair to show mining in progress. Chuck Laine with the Tennessee Miners Association pointed to reclaimed areas.

"In five, ten, fifteen years you're completely back to normal," said Laine.

Last year, we asked coal companies to show us current mining sites, instead they took us only to areas they had restored.

Lowe said the reclaimed areas near him are nothing like the mountains he remembers.

What worries him most is the orange water, and it worries environmentalist Matt Landon too.

"They're destroying the highland water sheds.  They're destroying the waterways here," said Landon.

Landon does independent water tests on streams around mining areas. The orange color in the water comes from metals left over from mining.

NewsChannel5 Investigates discovered state inspectors cited the state's largest coal companies for numerous water quality violations in just the last two years.

The mining may be in East Tennessee, but that water winds up here in Nashville. 

"The water that starts here in Claiborne County flows into the Cumberland River which flows right through Nashville," said Landon.

State inspectors cited companies for killing aquatic life with high acid levels and for altering streams.

National Coal mines the largest mountain top mine in Tennessee and has at least 18 state violations since 2004. 

Company executive Charles Kite said inspectors can be too tough.

"If you want to define a creek as two drops of water falling on a leaf on the top of a mountain, then yes, we've mined through creeks," said Kite.

Environmental groups are doing more testing because they say the state is understaffed. 

It's often up to local residents to file complaints with the state - which can be intimidating.

Johnny Lowe has trouble reading and says many others in the area do as well. He could not read of the names of family members buried in his family cemetery.

It upsets him that the area around his cemetery is primed for mining.

"They have come through there and clear-cut so they can come and mine it," said Lowe. 

As he looks at the scenery, he's concerned about the permanent damage mountain top mining is causing.

"To me that was a beautiful woman. Look at her now, she's scared to pieces," said Lowe.

A bill that would have limited mountain top mining failed again this year in the legislature.

Coal companies have won series of legislative battles that allow mining to increase in Tennessee.

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