State to retake coal mining regulation with industry at rock bottom

Costs transfer from federal government to state

Train cars loaded with coal sit on the tracks at a Blackjewel mining operation on August 22, 2019 in Cumberland, Kentucky. A group of coal miners blockaded the tracks and prevented the train from leaving the mine after Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, ceased operation and payed the miners their final pay with bad checks. The shutdown left more than 300 miners in Harlan County with no jobs and owed payment for three weeks of work. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Train cars loaded with coal sit on the tracks at a Blackjewel mining operation on August 22, 2019 in Cumberland, Kentucky. A group of coal miners blockaded the tracks and prevented the train from leaving the mine after Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy, ceased operation and payed the miners their final pay with bad checks. The shutdown left more than 300 miners in Harlan County with no jobs and owed payment for three weeks of work. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

“Mister Peabody’s Coal train” doesn’t run much through upper East Tennessee these days. The trains John Prine sang about in his famous song, “Paradise,” are practically non-existent.

Compared to the 1950s and ’60s when Claiborne, Campbell and Scott counties were considered coal-mining country, the industry has nearly vanished, according to those who monitor it.

Yet the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is set to resume regulation and permitting of Tennessee’s coal mining, taking over from the federal Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement after 37 years. This includes overseeing mountaintop removal and mining in which the Earth’s surface is removed and equipment digs into the ground to mine coal.

Sponsors of the legislation say it will give the Tennessee “primacy” over coal mining – whereas it was the only coal-mining state without that authority – potentially opening investments in blue gem coal, a low-sulfur coal that isn’t used for burning but for making steel and instruments such as solar panels and manufacturing batteries.

Critics contend eliminating requirements that the coal industry be self-sufficient will force taxpayers to spend about $1 million annually to subsidize a “collapsing” industry.

Jellico resident Tonia Brookman, director of the Woodland Community Land Trust, says few people in the area even know the Legislature passed the Primacy and Reclamation Act this session. 

“I really do believe it’s going to cost taxpayers more for them to take over this program … because the federal government was paying for it. I don’t know why the state feels that need to take on one more issue,” Brookman says. “I think down the road, it’s just going to come back and cost us more in the long run.”

Brookman doesn’t see the resumption of state authority as an economic boon, either. For one thing, the state’s regulations are supposed to be as strict as the federal rules. Secondly, coal mining is at such a low ebb, she sees little chance for a return.

When she moved to the area in 1996, trucks and trains hauled coal out of Jellico constantly. These days she doesn’t see the train hauling coal at all.

The Sierra Club says coal production declined 91% from 2009 to 2018 and that no coal was produced in Tennessee during the last three quarters of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021. The group contends reclaiming lands associated with forfeited coal-mining permits will fall to taxpayers as coal companies file bankruptcy. Abandoned mines that are bonded under the federal program will run into problems getting new bonds when the program is transferred to Tennessee, the Sierra Club believes.

Tonia Brookman, director, Woodland Community Land Trust (Photo: Facebook)
Tonia Brookman, director, Woodland Community Land Trust (Photo: Facebook)

  I really do believe it's going to cost taxpayers more (the state) to take over this program . . . because the federal government was paying for it. I don't know why the state feels that need to take on one more issue.   – Tonia Brookman, director, Woodland Community Land Trust

In addition, the law forces taxpayers to fund coal company engineering costs for new permit applications, according to Scott Banbury, conservation program coordinator for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“We think TDEC’s really underestimating how much it’s gonna truly cost to pick up this program and how little money they’re going to be receiving,” Banbury says.

The measure passed along party lines in the House and Senate with Democrats opposing in both chambers.

In the Senate, Democrat Heidi Campbell of Nashville opposed the bill, saying “critiques are so numerous the Legislature will be required to pass cleanup legislation.” TDEC’s initial run at reinstituting primacy took a near overhaul by the federal government, she said.

Furthermore, the new legislation doesn’t require the state-run program to be self-sufficient, she pointed out. Other Democrats said the bill would put Tennessee’s investment out of balance with a potential return.

Sen. Ken Yager, a Kingston Republican who carried the bill for the Majority Leader Jack Johnson of Franklin, admitted the state would need to spend money in fiscal 2022-23 and afterward to sustain the program. 

But he argued that the industry declined because of “lack of response” from the federal oversight agency. The legislation reflects a three-year wait for the federal government to bring 50 pages of suggestions, Yager said.

“Numerous investors in East Tennessee are waiting to see if this bill passes to make investments,” Yager added, mainly those planning to mine blue gem coal.

Yager also said he is “confident” that estimates the state relied on to pass legislation in 2018 will be “justified” and the state will see an increase in payments from the coal industry.

Yager, though, declined to comment for this story. A Senate Republican Caucus spokesperson referred questions to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The department did not answer questions about the potential cost to state taxpayers.

In a statement, spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said, “In 2018, the General Assembly directed the governor to seek the transfer of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act permitting and oversight program to the state. The passage of the 2021 legislation moves Tennessee closer to primacy, which will ensure fair, effective, responsive and efficient oversight of the surface mining industry while bringing Tennessee in line with other surface coal mining states.”

Asked Monday if he had concerns about higher costs, Gov. Bill Lee said he had evaluated the bill and felt it would give the state “balance” financially. He plans to sign the measure into law.

During debate on the Senate floor in April, Sen. Frank Nicely, whose upper East Tennessee district contains part of a blue gem coal seam, argued it was time for the state to regain the ability to approve coal-mining permits.

Sen. Frank Nicely, R-Strawberry Plains, says the legislation is focused on reclaiming mines and forests and “putting it back the way it was.”

“We are the only state that did not have primacy, and it’s time we got it back,” said Nicely, a Strawberry Plains Republican.

Nicely said he doesn’t understand why the Sierra Club opposes the legislation. He contends the organization isn’t concerned about costs but “just wants to be against something.”

“Where they’re mining up there, most of the mining that will be done is on reclaiming mines and reclaiming the forest and putting it back the way it was,” Nicely said.

Nicely believes re-upping coal mines will create jobs, improve the environment and produce a cleaner type of coal.

At one point, he said, Claiborne County was receiving $1 million a year from a tax on the coal-mining industry, which was split between the county school system and local roads. He insists that needs to be renewed.

Brookman, though, isn’t convinced coal mining will make a return. In other words, the Peabody Coal trains that hauled the product from Muhlenberg County, Kentucky in Prine’s “Paradise” won’t be heard too often in upper East Tennessee.

“There has been no mining at all in 2020, and I know there’s a few mines that have permits, but they’ve been in cessation, so I just really don’t see mining coming back like it once was in this community,” Brookman says. “They may open a few mines up and get a little bit out, but I just honestly do not feel it will be any benefit.”