Last week, Tennessee State Sen. Andy Berke (Chattanooga) and Rep. Mike McDonald (Portland, Tenn.) filed a bill with the Tennessee Legislature to ban surface mining on the Sewanee coal seam, the most toxic coal seam east of the Mississippi River.
If passed, the bill will serve as a tool to protect citizens and waterways from the devastating impacts of acid mine drainage from mining practices on the Sewanee coal seam.
"Our natural resources are vital to our health, our economy and our Tennessee way of life. By banning mountaintop removal and being good stewards of the gifts given to us, we preserve our mountains for future generations of Tennesseans to enjoy and protect," Berke said.
The Sewanee coal seam underlies much of the Cumberland Plateau, running from Kentucky to Alabama. The seam is surrounded by a layer of shale that contains high levels of pyrite. When that pyrite is exposed to water and air, it creates acid mine drainage, which is highly toxic to humans, animals and plants.
Because of its chemistry, there is no proven method of preventing acid mine drainage when the Sewanee coal seam is strip-mined.
Although there are no active mining sites on the Sewanee coal seam in Tennessee at this time, it is estimated there are more than 300 abandoned mines in the state of Tennessee—and a majority of the abandoned mines are in the Sewanee coal seam, according to Landon Medley, a resident and former county commissioner of Van Buren County, who has been working to end the mining of the Sewanee coal seam for more than 30 years.
Prior to enactment of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) of 1977, mines in Tennessee were not regulated; therefore, it is difficult to pin down the exact locations of former mines within the state.
James Macfarlane’s 1873 book “The Coal Regions of America” offers some insight into coal production in the Chattanooga area: “The Sewanee mines at Tracy City, in Grundy County … and the Aetna mines in Marion County produced by far the greater part of the coal sent to market in Tennessee in 1869, although there are many other points where coal is mined since the completion of the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad, through the Raccoon Mountain.”
Today, abandoned mines in the Sewanee coal seam continue to pollute waterways and communities throughout East Tennessee with acid mine drainage. According to Medley, the following counties have been particularly impacted: Bledsoe, Cumberland, Grundy, Hamilton, Marion, Overton, Sequatchie and Van Buren.
Medley lives near two abandoned Skyline Coal Company mine sites that border the Sequatchie and Van Buren county lines on the Cumberland Plateau. Skyline declared bankruptcy and ended mining practices there 20 years ago; however, acid mine drainage devastated water quality in the area. The federal Office of Surface Mining stepped in and created a state trust fund to treat the acid mine drainage coming off the two sites. The water has been treated for the past six years and will continue “in perpetuity,” Medley said.
Walden’s Ridge, through which the Sewanee coal seam runs, is scattered with abandoned mines, leaving area waterways heavily impacted by acid mine drainage.
The threat of future surface mining efforts within the Sewanee coal seam on Walden’s Ridge is real. Currently, the Canadian company Tiacme is exploring surface mining opportunities within the Rock Creek watershed on Walden’s Ridge, despite the area’s federal designation as Land Unsuitable for Mining (LUM).
“Tennessee doesn’t have anything to gain by allowing foreign companies to come in and mine this toxic seam,” J.W. Randolph, director of the Appalachian Voices office in Nashville, said. “The only thing our state has to gain is water pollution. Some of Tennessee’s biggest cities are directly downstream from the places that would be most heavily impacted by this toxic pollution, which means they would also be impacted.”
Currently, citizens of Tennessee are limited in legislative tools to protect their communities from the impacts of surface mining in the Sewanee coal seam: the Water Quality Act on the state level and the Lands Unsuitable for Mining petition and Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act on the federal level.
Berke and McDonald’s bill would ban any surface mining on the Sewanee coal seam in Tennessee.
“This bill specifically addresses the Sewanee coal seam because of its impacts on water,” Medley said. “We know that if mining is allowed, it will result in acid mine drainage, which will impact water quality, which will impact tourism in this area. This is not just an environmental issue—it is directly linked to the economic growth of the state and employment as well.”
Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the natural world and exploration opportunities found within the southeastern United States, one of the most biologically and recreationally rich regions on earth. Visit her blog at www.YourOutdoorFamily.com.