Why Won’t Tennessee’s Elected Leaders Ban Strip Mining in the East?

Strip mining coal is an old issue and not very sexy in today’s political world of war and scandal.  But we should be talking about it.  We should be outraged, in fact.

Elected officials supporting strip mining in the east should be kicked out, and special elections should be held.  We should be angry that life is not being protected, as promised, but devastated at an alarming rate, never to return.

Watch the trailer for The Last Mountain, a documentary about the struggles facing communities effected by mountain top mining.

Watch the trailer for The Last Mountain, a documentary about the struggles facing communities effected by mountain top mining.

Strip mining, or mountaintop mining, in the Appalachian Mountains in East Tennessee has devastated the region.  Some of the state’s most unique and diverse (undiscovered) life forms are being systematically decimated, and our elected officials have done nothing but support ‘clean coal’, a straw man argument against building infrastructure in renewable energy like solar, wind and geothermal.  Although truly clean energy has helped other countries become energy independent, conflict neutral and lead the way to a higher quality of living standard, the U.S. just won’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s Like, Duh.

Throwback to childhood.  My parents were friends with our neighborhood dentist.  The dentist’s son, Eli, was hearing impaired.  My parents would sometimes take me over to visit, and while the parents were gabbing, Eli and I would play together.  Although Eli was the same age as I was at the time (I think we were both about eight), he was developmentally delayed due to his inability to learn the same way as hearing children.

One day, Eli and I found a strange looking beetle in the dirt.  We felt proud as we watched the beetle crawl around in the sunlight, and our parents even came over to see.  After a few minutes, Eli began covering up the beetle with a mound of dirt.  I tried to convince him to stop.  Eli’s dad signed to him that the beetle would die, but he continued until all the dirt around the beetle was firmly packed into place.  A look of satisfaction crept across Eli’s face.

But, a few minutes later, Eli decided he wanted to play with the beetle again.  So he dug around until he unearthed the bug, expecting to find it as he left it – iridescent and lively.  Instead he found it lifeless.  Eli began to cry when he realized the beetle wasn’t moving, and he cried even more when his father explained to him (again) that he was responsible for the beetle’s death.  A valuable life lesson.

endangered smokey mountains

The Great Smokey Mountains in Tennessee are home to rare species.

This experience reminds me of what is happening with mountain top mining in Eastern Tennessee.

Eli wasn’t stupid.  In fact, he was a very creative, fun and inquisitive person.  His childish naivete was obviously from a lack of life experience.  But adults with only half a brain don’t have any excuse.  Why is this same concept so difficult for adults to understand when it comes to protecting our wildlife treasures?

Kids Just Don’t Listen

The question of why Tennesseans don’t get behind conservation efforts has always confounded me.  As a Nashville native, I grew up surrounded by Christian values involving loving others, protecting innocent life and taking on the role of steward over the land, water and sky.

Luke 16:11 says, “If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?”  We can take this to mean that our lawmakers’ pursuit of ‘unrighteous’ wealth (short-sighted, cheap electricity for us to waste on blowing leaves around our yards) will result in not having the ‘true riches’ of a healthy ecosystem that will sustain generations to come.

As a Tennessean, I am ashamed about the widespread denial of this issue.  I am embarrassed for my fellow Christians who seem to go out of their way to avoid scientific facts regarding what is happening in our very own back yards.  Besides, you don’t even need to be a scientist to understand.  You only need to feel things – like Eli felt – to really ‘get’ it.

The Great Smokey Mountain National Park is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and part of a World Wildlife Fund Global 200 Eco-region.  Countless species of fish, reptiles, insects, amphibians and birds – species that only live there – are being wiped out as you read this.  Their habitats (homes) are the rivers, streams, trees, rocks, hollows, puddles and ponds that mining companies strip away.

UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, World Heritage Site, and part of a World Wildlife Fund Global 200 Eco-region – See more at: http://www.thelaurelofasheville.com/new-species-great-smokies-park.html#sthash.scokSKNc.dpu          Let’s repeat that.  These creatures only live there, and nowhere else.  So, like the beetle Eli killed, they will never come back once they are gone.This isn’t a case where Mother Earth heals herself.  Those life forms will be gone forever.

The Solution:  Ban Mountain Top Mining

Banning mountain top mining and investing in truly clean energy production and infrastructure will empower Tennessee to become stronger in the long run and more competitive economically, giving us ‘true riches’.  Plus, it’s the right thing to do from a moral perspective.

Researchers at University of Tennessee in Knoxville have put together an All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory (ATBI), an ongoing project which has helped to discover and document as many species as possible.  Using this inventory, activists have attempted to file complaints and petition congress for action – to no avail.

“To preserve our living resources, it is crucial to understand what life exists,” says Todd Witcher in an interview with The Laurel of Asheville. “Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one of the largest protected areas in the region, and a critical enclave of suitable habitats for an estimated 100,000 species of life, protecting them from development pressures and providing refuge in the face of global climate change.”

The Fallacy of Reclamation

According to section 515(c)(1) of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 , mountain top coal mining sites must be reclaimed, or filled back in and replanted, once all the coal has been extracted.  This sounds good at first.  But think about what this really means.

The forest will grow back in 20 years or so, and the terrain will look similar to the way it did before, but he species that were once there will be gone.  Never to return.  Just like Eli’s beetle after being smothered in the dirt.

Scientists can now identify hundreds of species that only exist in that place.  Does any amount of money really justify the destruction that is currently taking place in our state?  Is it worth murdering entire species so you can pay a few dollars less on your electricity bill?

Once it’s too late, we’ll all cry about it and say what a shame it is that we have to fight over something as simple as clean drinking water.  An alternate future might have a Medicine Man-style discovery of a cure for cancer  that can only be extracted from a special mountain wildflower or from the gut of a salamander.  But we’ll never know, because they’ll all be dead.

How to Help

To influence positive change, vote for local leaders who support a ban on mountain top mining.  Another thing you can do is write to your Senators and Representatives telling them you support a ban on mountain top mining and eliminating subsidies for gas and coal companies.  Finally, join local groups and petition for a ban on destructive mining practices in Tennessee.