Legislators vote for state takeover of coal mining regulation from feds

Following a four-year push by Tennessee’s coal mining industry, both the House and Senate have now approved legislation to have the state Department of Environment and Conservation assume oversight of the industry from the federal Office of Surface Mining.

The House approved the bill (SB686) on Monday on a vote of 69-20 while the Senate gave assent 25-4 back on March 12. The House added an amendment that will send the measure back to the Senate for anticipated concurrence.

Tennessee surrendered oversight of coal mining – called “primacy” in the industry — to the federal government 34 years ago. Sponsors Sen. Ken Yager (R-Kingston) and Rep. Dennis Powers (R-Jacksboro) say Tennessee is now the only coal-mining state in the nation that doesn’t operate its own program of issuing permits and enforcing regulations.

In House debate, Powers said that Tennessee is now at a disadvantage with other states in expansion of the coal-mining industry because of federal oversight. In Kentucky, which has primacy over mining operations there, it take just eight to 12 months to obtain a permit, he said, while getting  permit from the OSM in Tennessee can take four to five years.

The sponsors say state oversight will mean increased coal mining within the state and more jobs for citizens in rural, economically-distressed counties of East Tennessee that have coal. Some environmentalist groups, including the Sierra Club, have opposed state oversight, contending it will mean lax enforcement of anti-pollution rules and regulations. The sponsors contend that state primacy will actually mean better water qualify and environmental protections by encouraging miners to clean up damage left from old mines abandoned prior to 1977 when there were no effective regulations.

Similar legislation has failed in legislative sessions since 2014. Supporters say that was mostly because of concerns for covering the cost of TDEC oversight.

Yager told senators that he had promised Gov. Bill Haslam that no state general fund dollars will be spent if the bill is enacted. The measure, as amended, anticipates the federal government will provide half the money needed – about $2.5 million – and the rest will come from fees assessed on the mining industry.

Powers told representatives that the bill won’t take effect until federal officials have signed off on providing the money after TDEC submits a plan for the takeover, a process he estimated will take 18 to 24 months.

Excerpt from a 2015 post on the effort to pass state primacy legislation in that year:

Tennessee gave up “primacy” in coal regulation in 1984 at the urging of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator. Alexander is neutral on the current move, according to spokesman Brian Reisinger, who explained Alexander’s decision as governor three decades ago, in an email when last year’s bill was pending:

“In the 1980s, the federal government was continually second-guessing state inspectors, creating a bureaucratic nightmare. Then-Gov. Alexander recommended, and the state Legislature agreed, that if the federal government wouldn’t stop interfering with state decision-making, Tennessee would turn it back over to the federal government, which state leaders did.”

Current Gov. Bill Haslam, as Yager told the Senate committee last week, has no problem with a state takeover, reversing Alexander’s decision, as long as it does not add to state expense in a time of tight state budgeting.

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