e-mail us
A slugfest over strip-mining

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Murfreesboro, Tenn.

Like a pair of wary and weary heavyweight boxers, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, an environmental group, and Skyline Coal Co., one of Tennessee’s leading coal producers, have been cuffing each other around for years.

Their latest bout is temporarily on hold after the “referee,” the federal government’s Office of Surface Mining, Department of the Interior, issued a draft environmental impact study this summer that pleases neither of the combatants. A final decision is expected in December or early next year.

At stake is whether Skyline, headquartered in Dunlap, Tenn., will be permitted to strip coal in the 85,000-acre watershed of Fall Creek Falls State Park, which was established in 1944 and is the crown jewel in Tennessee’s state park system. Opponents say strip-mining the area will destroy the park’s water quality and natural beauty.

The case highlights one of the central unresolved tensions facing society: exploitation of natural resources for economic benefit at the risk of ecological damage or preservation of natural beauty, often at the risk of economic disadvantage. Given that activists have been fighting strip-mining for decades, this case also points to how intractable some environmental struggles can be.

Adding to the significance of the debate here over who gets to use the land and for what purpose is the involvement of Catholic leaders and Catholic money, a growing presence in environmental battles. The leading opponent of strip-mining, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, received $40,000 from the Catholic bishops’ Campaign for Human Development. A nun who formerly served as a volunteer staffer is now a member of the board. Opponents of strip-mining got a boost from a letter written by Bishop Anthony J. O’Connell, who stated that, “ ‘the face of Christ that is etched in every part of creation’ will be defaced and even obliterated” if strip-mining is permitted.

The head of the mining company, Jim Mottet, a devout Catholic, took issue with the bishop’s assessment. He maintains that his mining operation restores the landscape after mining and that the bishop’s objections were uninformed.

Mottet was so upset by O’Connell’s letter that he now goes to church across the state line in Georgia.

The 18,700-acre park and natural area lies some 135 miles southeast of Nashville on the Cumberland Plateau and annually draws about a million visitors who hike, camp, fish, golf and enjoy some of the Southeast’s most spectacular scenery. Fall Creek Falls itself provides the centerpiece attraction. At 256 feet, it is billed as the highest waterfall in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains.

Not surprisingly, the State of Tennessee weighed in on the side of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, albeit somewhat belatedly. So, too, have two members of the Tennessee congressional delegation and some of the state’s leading newspapers.

The issue centers on whether strip-mining in the watershed would pollute the streams, Fall Creek Falls and other waterfalls in the park with toxic acid mine drainage. Runoff results when iron pyrite in the shale overburden that has been removed to reach the coal is exposed to air and rain, forming sulfuric acid. Typically, the acid seeps through cracks in the rocks and ends up in nearby streams, turning them an ugly reddish orange color and killing aquatic life.

For its part, the coal company says it has no intention of harming the park. The company claims that modern technology and regulations assure it will be able to control acid mine drainage in a “technologically and economically feasible” manner.

In addition, Save Our Cumberland Mountains, a feisty 2,500-member environmental organization, and other environmentalists claim that stripping in the watershed would adversely affect views from overlooks in the park and the proposed Trail of Tears National Historical Trail. The mining operation, opponents claim, would also threaten “fragile lands” and habitat for trout, cave-dwelling creatures and rare flowering plants. Skyline dismisses these concerns as unfounded.

Whether stripping hurts or helps the area economically is in dispute as well. The company claims it employs 68 persons, has an annual payroll of $2.15 million, spends $11 million a year to purchase supplies in the region, pays nearly $900,000 a year to third parties for services rendered and lease commitments, and $800,000 in taxes.

The environmental group, on the other hand, claims that tourism created by the park is a $136 million industry in a seven-county area and that 2,000 jobs, a payroll of nearly $26 million and almost $5 million in tax receipts are generated. Stripping, they warn, would put all of this in jeopardy.

The company, already producing 400,000 to 600,000 tons annually from the Sewanee coal seam within a few miles of the park, leases 30,000 acres in the contested watershed and plans to move into that area next.

If the federal agency ultimately rules the company cannot strip in the watershed, the company threatens a battle in the courts, contending it would be entitled to compensation from the federal government under the Fifth Amendment of the U.S Constitution and other “takings” laws governing land use. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbit would have final say on the federal agency’s ruling. Skyline President and General Manager Jim Mottet says the company has not determined how much compensation it would seek.

The current dispute stems from July 1995 when Save Our Cumberland Mountains along with the Tennessee Citizens for Wilderness Planning and 49 individuals living near the park in Bledsoe and Van Buren counties filed an 80-page Lands Unsuitable for Mining Petition with the Office of Surface Mining seeking to have the park watershed declared unsuitable for surface mining.

Skyline, in turn, filed an 86-page counter-petition in January 1996.

On May 1, the federal Office of Surface Mining unveiled its draft environmental impact statement on the matter, choosing from among five alternatives one that satisfied no one. The Office of Surface Mining recommended that the environmental group’s petition be denied but also recommended that the coal company be required to conduct a separate environmental impact study each time it wished to mine a new portion of the watershed. Such a requirement, said Skyline’s Mottet, would be costly and unacceptable.

The company, in its written response to the federal agency’s draft recommendation, said if the recommendation were enacted, the company would be forced to shut down operations following completion of mining operations in the permitted areas outside the watershed. Asked how much each additional environmental impact statement would cost Skyline, Mottet said the company doesn’t have an estimate. But, he said, “Our last permit cost in excess of $250,000 without the EIS attached.”

Some 350 persons attended a four-hour public hearing June 18 conducted by the Office of Surface Mining on its draft environmental impact statement. Most of those attending wore chartreuse buttons that read “Save Fall Creek Falls,” supplied by the environmental group. Button-wearers blasted the agency’s recommendation to deny the environmental group’s petition. All but one of the 44 speakers lambasted Skyline’s plans to mine the watershed.

Landon Medley, chair of Save Our Cumberland Mountains’ strip mine committee, charged that the Office of Surface Mining had given the citizens of Tennessee “the terms of unconditional surrender for the Fall Creek Falls watershed and viewshed” in its draft environmental impact statement.

“Big money corporations have tried to run over the citizens of the Fall Creek Falls watershed for 24 years,” Medley said. “They could not do it on their own, so they have the Office of Surface Mining to do their work for them.”

Two Democratic congressmen from Tennessee, Bart Gordon and Bob Clement, sent letters in favor of protecting the watershed from mining to be read at the hearing. The environmental group has lobbied the White House, Vice President Al Gore (a Tennessean), Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt and the state’s senators and representatives in Washington. Skyline officials, meanwhile, chose to lay low and did not address the hearing, opting instead to express their own displeasure in writing prior to the July 30 deadline for public response to the environmental impact study. The deadline was extended after Gordon met with Babbitt.

As the original deadline approached, Republican Gov. Don Sundquist’s administration expressed its position in a letter to the Office of Surface Mining’s field office in Knoxville, Tenn. Justin Wilson, deputy to the governor for policy, wrote that the federal agency’s study had failed to fully consider the environmental and economic impacts that acid mine drainage would have on the state park and natural area and the surrounding region.

“The state believes OSM should perform another analysis of mining impact on the park,” Wilson wrote. “Until the federal report is finalized, the state will follow its own policies ... which provide for protection of specially designated natural areas, such as Fall Creek Falls.”

In the letter, Wilson pointed to a history of acid mine drainage in the park’s watershed and argued that additional mining would pose an unacceptable risk to its natural resources.

National Catholic Reporter, October 16, 1998