Protecting the vistas

Sen. Finney sponsors bill to protect mountain tops from mining

A new bill sponsored by State Sen. Raymond Finney aims to protect the mountain tops over 2,000 feet high from being destroyed by surface mining of coal.

Finney was approached by Strawberry Plains adoption attorney Dawn Coppock who is writing legislation to protect mountains from being destroyed in much the same way mountains in Kentucky and West Virginia have. The legislation is known as the Tennessee Scenic Vistas Protection Act - SB 3822 and HB 3348.

Finney said the legislation hit home for him in light of the land purchase the state made when it bought 128,000 acres for $82 million in 2007. “We bought that land and didn’t get the mineral rights and timber rights. We may have purchased a moonscape in a few years,” he said. ‘To my knowledge we didn’t buy any mineral rights, but some timber rights.”

Coppock said she and Pat Hudson wrote the law to protect mountain tops above 2,000 feet from being destroyed by mountain top removal mining. Once they drafted the law they approached Finney about sponsoring it.

Coppock works for the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, an outreach of her church, the Church of the Savior United Church of Christ in Knoxville. Cathy Lindquist was a scientist who died of cancer three years ago but had two passions, the youth at the church and surface coal mining issues, Coppock said.

“She wrote about stewardship and creation care,” Coppock said.

When she died the church wanted to do something to honor her passion regarding surface mining issues, so Hudson and Coppock created information to raise awareness about creation care and distributed it to about 70 different churches. One video they gave away was called “Mountain Mourning,” and it was produced by Christians for Mountains in West Virginia. The video showed the damage caused when the tops were blown off mountains and the dirt shoved down to get to the coal seams.

Often the video of the blasting on mountain tops energized people. “They get totally incensed and want to know if it is happening in Tennessee. Pat and I knew it was, and they said go find legislation and that was when we wrote some. We never meant to be political,” she said.

Finney said the bill goes back to the Biblical principle of man being a steward of creation. “This is a very necessary and long-forgotten mission of the church,” he said.

Coppock said stewardship is not about never touching land. “It is about using land in way so that it’s still there for the next generations to use,” she said. “You can timber and mine in responsible way, but there’s no responsible way to blow the top off the mountain.”

Finney said in mountain top removal workers put a line of explosives, blow up the mountain, take huge earth movers and push it into a valley below. “They keep blowing it up and pushing it until they get to a seam. The bulldozers they use could hold 40 Honda Accords.”

Coppock said the coal industry recently testified in the Senate that if this passes there would be no more coal mining in Tennessee. “It does not apply to activity related to underground coal mining. Half of our coal mining is underground mining,” she said.

Coppock said mountain top removal is where a company removes the ridge to get to the coal. “Our bill doesn’t ban all surface mining. It bans mountain top removal, also called strip mining on steroids. It only affects mountains over 2,000 feet in elevation,” she said. “Our bill says if its over 2,000 feet, you can’t alter or destroy the ridgeline with surface coal mining. You can still deep mine it or strip mine it or you can auger mine it.”

The Senate Environmental Subcommittee was scheduled to vote on the legislation on March 14 and the House Environmental Subcommittee was scheduled to consider it next week. Finney said this is one of the most important pieces of legislation the Senate will consider this year.

“It affects the future of the Cumberland Mountain area. A lot of bills we do adjust speed limits or authorize license plates. This affects the whole area,” he said.

If the mountains tops are removed because of mining, the consequences would be irreversible. “We’ll never see this repaired. These mountains are too precious and beautiful not to save them for our grandchildren,” he said. “We just have to start doing a better job of conserving beauty around us.”

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