Interior restricts coal mining in sensitive areas of Tennessee

At the request of the state of Tennessee, the U.S. Department of the Interior said Dec. 7 that it has agreed to designate approximately 75,000 acres of mountain ridgelines as unsuitable for surface coal mining operations.

The agency said this action helps protect a spectacular area of eastern Tennessee that is critical to the region’s tourism and outdoor recreation economy, provides valuable fish and wildlife habitat and supports a healthy watershed. In its petition, the state said coal mining in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and Emory River Tract Conservation Easement would be incompatible with existing local and state land use plans and programs, and that such mining would result in significant damage to natural systems and cultural, scientific and aesthetic values. The designation does not impact existing mining operations within the area.

“Today’s action honors Tennessee’s request to protect the Cumberland Plateau’s majestic forests, mountains and streams for future generations,” said Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell.

“Tennessee appreciates the thoughtful approach applied by the Department of the Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement throughout their deliberate handling of the state’s Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition filed in 2010 for specific mountain ridgelines in the Northern Cumberlands. Their final decision provides protection for particular high-elevation ridgelines in this region and also affords increased potential for beneficial remining that was both responsive to our input and measured to achieve optimal conservation and recovery on important public lands,” said Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau.

“Secretary Jewell’s decision to approve the State of Tennessee’s petition to protect over 550 miles of ridgetops in Anderson, Campbell, Morgan and Scott counties as unsuitable for mining will help safeguard our state’s mountains without affecting mining operations in other parts of these counties or elsewhere in Tennessee,” said U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander.

Tennessee’s 2010 petition requested that Interior’s Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement (OSMRE) declare a 1,200 foot corridor (600 feet on each side of the ridgelines) in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and Emory River Tract Conservation Easement as unsuitable for surface coal mining operations. The petition area encompassed about 67,326 acres. Based on subsequent input, OSMRE is designating 74,968 acres associated with 569 miles of ridgeline as unsuitable in Anderson, Campbell, Scott, and Morgan counties, Tennessee.

The Record of Decision makes a limited exception for remining activities, restricted to proposals that will provide environmental benefits, such as reclaiming abandoned mine lands by eliminating highwalls and reducing the impacts of acid mine drainage and residual sedimentation. In reviewing remining proposals, OSMRE must consult with other parties, including the state of Tennessee, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, to determine whether any proposed remining action is compatible with the designation.

The agency prepared a draft Petition Evaluation Document and accompanying draft Environmental Impact Statement in December of 2015. The final Environmental Impact Statement was released Oct. 28, 2016.

OSMRE regulates coal mining directly in Tennessee under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977, since this is a non-primacy state that lacks its own state-level coal mine regulatory program.

Notable is that this rule affects relatively little coal mining since the state features thin remaining seams of coal with fairly high mining costs. The U.S. Energy Information Administration, based on 2014 figures, ranked Tennessee as the 22nd biggest coal producing state with 839,000 tons of output.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.