skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Allen Hershkowitz’s Blog

Protecting Tennessee From Mountaintop Coal Mining

Allen Hershkowitz

Posted March 10, 2010

, , , , , , , , , ,
Share | | |

As we study the universe, sending telescopes into other solar systems and far off galaxies, one thing has become abundantly clear: perhaps the rarest phenomenon in the universe is organic life.

To date, despite all our intergalactic travel and research, we have established that living organisms exist only in the biosphere surrounding just one planet, our Earth. The biosphere, the very narrow band that contains all the known life in the universe, is tiny, stretching from about three miles up, to the top of the Earth’s atmosphere, to about two miles down, to the depths of the oceans. Yup, that’s it: the biosphere, three miles up, two miles down.  That is the only location we know of in the universe where life exists. If we were to find a life form, even one as tiny as bacteria or a virus, on another planet or moon, it would be front page news. Life is indeed a rare thing. 

Our daunting task in the 21st century is the preservation of the functional integrity of the biosphere, on which all life depends.  And yet, to date, humanity’s chief interest in the biosphere has been to maximize the plunder of its great store of natural resources. Humanity has instigated unprecedented rates of ecological damage at a global scale. And although humanity adds up to a small share of the Earth’s total living matter, we have been responsible for all the damaging changes to all forms of life within the biosphere.

Yesterday, that fact, the extraordinary rarity of life, the urgency to protect every remaining creature that lives within our biosphere, kept running through my chattering mind over and over while I attended two hearings in the Tennessee state legislature.

Both hearings, one in the Tennessee Senate and one in the House, addressed bills designed to limit mountaintop removal coal mining (MTR) in the state, and both hearings brought into sharp relief how hard it is to tackle this ecological and cultural calamity.

The legislation being considered by the Tennessee legislature is simple and modest in scope: Each bill would merely prohibit surface mining on mountain ridgelines in Tennessee above 2,000 feet high. Not all of the mountains in Tennessee at risk of being blown apart for mountaintop removal coal mining (or a linguistic variation of it known as “cross ridge mining”) are higher than 2,000 feet, so the legislation would not entirely end the threat of MTR in Tennessee. But the bills would provide meaningful ecological and public health value, limiting MTR to lower elevations, fewer steep slopes and heights less subject to landslides.

And the bills would protect the Cumberland Plateau from MTR. The Cumberland Plateau is one of the world’s great biological treasures and an NRDC BioGem.

Some of the most important and rare forms of life found in Tennessee’s biologically diverse forests enjoy the higher elevations of the Plateau. For example, the Cerulean Warbler likes those higher elevations on the Northern Plateau. (It munches on insects found on the underside of hardwood leaves, keeping trees healthy.) So does Swainson’s Warbler, the Louisiana Waterthrush, the Worm-Eating Warbler, the Wood Thrush, the Acadian Flycatcher and the Kentucky Warbler.

According the greatest authority on Cerulean Warblers, Melinda Welton, that bird is perhaps the single most threatened songbird in North America. Its population throughout the United States has dropped by 82 percent in the last forty years, 88 percent in Tennessee during that same period. Habitat degradation from deforestation and fragmentation are the principle causes of its decline. Still, the Northern Cumberland Plateau region in Tennessee continues to host the single largest concentration of Cerulean Warblers reported from anywhere within its range. (see

Unfortunately for the Cerulean Warbler, the region it most depends on for survival is the region in Tennessee most coveted by coal mining companies for mountaintop removal coal mining. The Tennessee Valley Authority alone owns 55,000 acres in the Northern Cumberland Plateau area, on which it could mine coal. MTR coal mining is a prime cause of deforestation and forest fragmentation in Appalachia, precisely the type of threats that are wiping out the Cerulean Warbler and other forms of life in the southeast United States. But perhaps there is room for hope: Some of the Northern Cumberland Plateau area is above 2,000 feet in elevation, and there are two bills in the Tennessee legislature that would prohibit MTR coal mining at those elevations.

Perhaps my thoughts about the uniqueness of life kept wafting through my mind because of a meeting I had earlier yesterday with the Reverend Ryan Bennett. Rev. Bennett, an elder in the United Methodist Church and pastor of the Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, was also attending the hearings because he belongs to a coalition of religious groups that support the bills to limit MTR in order to do what they can to protect God’s creation.

The Southern Baptist Church, the Catholic Church, the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church and the Presbyterian Church have all taken official positions against mountaintop removal coal mining, the most destructive form of coal mining on Earth. Rev. Bennett was at the hearings yesterday with numerous other members of the Lindquist Environmental Appalachian Fellowship, (LEAF) a religious coalition committed to protecting “The Earth…and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1)  LEAF is the prime backer of the legislation to stop MTR in Tennessee. LEAF’s Legislative Director, a charming church lady named Dawn Coppock, is the person most responsible for the progress of the MTR-limiting legislation in Tennessee.

The work of LEAF resonates strongly in me because my religion teaches that Nature reveals God. According to the Talmud, creation is not merely an act in the past. The processes of Nature represent the unceasing and ongoing creative power of the Divine. “Every hour He makes provision for all who come into the world according to their need. In His Grace He satisfies all creatures.” Every hour. Provision for all creatures. (Everyman’s Talmud, at P. 3.)

And the work of LEAF resonates in me as well because it is rational as well as spiritual, based on scientific fact as well as ethics.

Science is not just another opinion, and science tells us that there is no way to undertake MTR coal mining without causing irreparable harm and even death to many life forms, homo sapiens included.

So, along with church ladies and Reverends, also in attendance at the MTR hearings in Tennessee yesterday were scientists. Dr. Dennis Lemly, one of the world’s great authorities on selenium, testified powerfully about the effects that MTR has in causing selenium pollution: “Selenium from mountaintop removal mining poisons fish. Selenium threatens wildlife as well as fish. It bioaccumulates and threatens the entire food chain. The impacts are pervasive and irreversible.”

Selenium is a naturally occurring element in coal. It leaches from coal, from mining spoils and from valley fills. It leaches through waste rock. According to Dr. Lemly, “There is no way you can do MTR without selenium contamination. Selenium pollution will increase if MTR increases. Tennessee is facing a very serious situation with regard to water pollution and dead fish due to selenium poisoning.”

Last year, Tennessee enacted a law that would keep mines 100 feet from water bodies. According to Dr. Lemly, that was a “token effort” not likely to offer meaningful protection. “Fish are being poisoned from MTR sites as far as 13 miles away from the mine site. MTR sites in Tennessee are ticking time bombs and four have been allowed to explode.”

I remember my first visit to the Zeb Mountain MTR site in northern Tennessee. It was many years ago, when the mine had just begun. First I flew over it, and then visited it by car. Within ten minutes of my arrival at the gate to the mine, where I thought I was alone with my local guide, a local sheriff arrived who made it clear that he didn’t appreciate my effort to view the site. The waters running off the mine were acidic, nothing seemed alive in them. The rocks in the streams were orange and red, with ferrous and other elements leaching out due to the acidic quality of the water. According to Dr. Lemly, “A time bomb has exploded on Zeb Mountain. Selenium pollution has started and it will not stop. Things are in bad shape on Zeb Mountain. There are extremely high levels of selenium pollution that will lead to reproductive failure in fish populations, the situation is grim. Groundwater is also at risk and will affect human health.”

Zeb Mountain
Photo of Zeb Mountain, United Mountain Defense

Other pollutants besides selenium that are released because of MTR coal mining include mercury, lead, arsenic, nickel, copper, and zinc.

The good news for Tennessee is that information from mining in other states provides a useful toxicological data base that can be used to protect against repeating the same mistakes in Tennessee. Says Dr. Lemly, “The information about mining in other areas is there. Look at West Virginia, at Kentucky. Don’t ignore that. The poisoning from MTR is inevitable and inescapable. Water quality will be gone and it will not come back. Out west selenium is still discharging from closed mines that were started 100 years ago. It doesn’t stop. I don’t know how we can ignore the science.”

According to Dr. Lemly, the selenium levels at Zeb Mountain are 40 times higher than the tolerable toxicity threshold in fish. “And I don’t mean fish no one cares about, I’m talking about the major fish species, largemouth bass, blue gills, the kind you and I like to fish for.” Selenium pollution of water resources near Zeb Mountain are 20 times higher than the level at which we expect to see reproductive failure, and 8 times higher than the toxicity level at which we would expect to see the collapse of the entire fish population. According to Dr. Lemly: “I think there is a high probability that the homes around Zeb Mountain have water quality problems.”

Another professor, Dr. Orie Louks, testified at the hearings about the effects of MTR on forest productivity. According to Dr. Louks, “Forest productivity collapses post-MTR. It is very difficult to reestablish trees post MTR. Trying to do so, to restore the land, would put coal operators out of business.” Scientists estimate that post MTR forests will not recover for 10,000 years.

Sometimes, enacting environmental regulations can challenge an industry. But in this case putting MTR coal operators out of business would be a good thing for the economy. According to Dr. Louks: “MTR takes away forest-based jobs and takes away underground mining jobs.” In Tennessee, there are less than 400 jobs in the surface mining industry. By contrast, tourism produces $14 billion worth of economic activity in the state and tens of thousands of jobs.

As I sat in the Tennessee Legislature’s hearing room, I thought of the diverse interests aligned that day against MTR: evangelical and other religious groups, scientists, and those interested in protecting the much more lucrative—and clean--tourism industry from the ravages of MTR coal mining. Religious groups, scientists, business interests, all aligned against MTR.

And yet, as I met after the hearings with a senior Tennessee government official, I was told there was probably no way that the bills under consideration to limit MTR coal mining in Tennessee would pass. “The coal companies own them. They finance their campaigns.” was what I was told, in reference to the Tennessee state legislators unmoved by the compelling ethics, the peer-reviewed science and the community economics aligned against MTR coal mining.

One might reasonably think that a pro-business coalition of religious groups and scientists might prevail in limiting MTR in Tennessee to “only” those mountains lower than 2,000 feet. And yet, I’m told the odds are slim for passage. We’ll see. The story isn’t over, not yet. After all, only God should move mountains, and sometimes, He does.

Share | | |


Daniel R. CobbMar 12 2010 10:40 PM

Dear Mr. Hershkowitz,

Thanks for the great article. The sad fact seems to be that corporations have simply purchased our government, because money talks. How can this be legal?

Another avenue is to try to squelch the demand for coal. Here in Oregon, many of us are working to close an illegal coal-fired power plant. The Boardman Plant (operated by Portland General Electric) has been operating outside of the Clean Air Act for three decades. Yes, unbelievable. We are hoping to close Boardman within four years, thereby removing that demand for coal. Every bit helps. Keep up the great work.

Dan Cobb

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Stay Plugged In