Feds ban mountaintop coal mining on 75,000 acres in East TN

The federal government on Wednesday banned mountaintop coal mining from more than 500 miles of ridges in East Tennessee’s Cumberland Mountains, reports Michael Collins. The move was praised by Tennessee’s environmental commissioner and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander as well as conservation groups – though condemned by mining officials.

The Department of Interior said it is designating nearly 75,000 acres of mountain ridges as unsuitable for surface mining, in essence barring a controversial form of mining known as mountaintop removal. (Note: The department’s press release, with much comment, is HERE.)

…The decision comes in response to a petition filed in 2010 by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, just three months before he left office. In its petition, the state said mountaintop coal mining would be incompatible with existing local and state plans and would affect fragile or historic lands that would result in significant damage to cultural, scientific, aesthetic values or natural systems.

The land that will be declared off-limits to mountaintop mining is in Scott, Morgan, Anderson and Campbell counties and falls within the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and the Emory River Tract Conservation Easement.

The state’s original petition asked the federal government to declare a 1,200-foot buffer — 600 feet on each side of the ridgelines — as unsuitable for surface mining. The petition included about 67,326 acres.

Based on public comments and improved aerial mapping technology that more accurately reflected the state’s objective, the federal designation actually impacts 74,968 acres associated with 569 miles of ridgeline, the Interior Department said.

Tennessee appreciates the “thoughtful approach” by the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement in handling the state’s petition, said Bob Martineau, commissioner of the state Department of Environment and Conservation.

…Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association called the decision “an intelligent compromise to allow access to minerals while protecting the State of Tennessee’s economic investment in the wildlife management area.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, an opponent of mountaintop removal mining, said the decision will help safeguard the state’s mountains without affecting mining operations in other parts of the impacted counties or elsewhere in Tennessee.

“This means these ridgetop landscapes — and the rivers, streams and forests that surround them — can continue to bring millions of tourists and thousands of jobs to Tennessee,” Alexander said.

The National Mining Association, however, called the Interior Department’s announcement “yet another unwarranted blow to our ability to responsibly utilize this nation’s domestic resources.”

The designation is based on “a flawed petition” that failed to make the case for why the vast area in East Tennessee is more deserving of protection than others and uses a part of federal law that never contemplated land withdrawals of this size, said Ashley Burke, the mining association’s spokeswoman.

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