Coal Mining in the Cumberlands

Cerulean Warbler: Biologists have recorded some of the highest densities of Cerulean warblers in Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau.


Photo © Rob Simpson

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President dismantles stream protections, threatening drinking water for Southeasterners, nation More »

Today President Donald Trump signed into law a repeal of the Stream Protection Rule, dismantling key protections that help keep our drinking water safe from coal pollution. The President’s signature on this bill marks the first anti-environmental rollback of many promised from this new administration.

“In their first move to dismantle basic protections of the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we depend on, anti-environment leaders in Congress and the Administration chose to put coal-mining profits over the health and safety of Appalachian communities,” said SELC Senior Attorney Deborah Murray. “Limiting the toxic waste coal companies can dump in our rivers and streams is not a burdensome government regulation; it is common sense and, quite frankly, the job of our federal government. We cannot continue to allow toxic mining pollution in our sources of drinking water.”

Often, mining companies have sent toxin-laden waste tumbling from mountaintops into valleys and streams, harming or destroying these crucial waterways. The Stream Protection Rule limited the amount of mining waste that could be deposited into streams and required mining companies to monitor the water for coal contaminants and report the findings to the public.

Finalized in December after years of input from a wide range of stakeholders, the rule provided clarity and peace of mind to those still living in coal communities and protected 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest for the next 20 years, according to the Department of the Interior.

Provisions in the rule included requiring companies to avoid mining practices that would permanently pollute streams or drinking water sources and restoring streams and mined areas to pre-mining uses.

But now the protections have been stripped from these communities through use of the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rule. The Congressional Review Act process prohibits any similar rules from taking shape in the future. That means these protections for important sources of drinking water in mining communities could go away—for good.

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Protecting Public Lands on Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau

Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau is renowned for its expansive forests, rich aquatic life, and outstanding outdoor recreation. In years past, surface coal mining left a devastating environmental footprint on the plateau--clear cuts, polluted rivers, and unstable slopes. While parts of the region have shown signs of recovery, the threat of future mountaintop removal and similarly destructive forms of surface mining is ongoing.

Lands Unsuitable for Coal Mining

SELC has been engaged for several years in efforts to protect the Cumberland Plateau from the worst impacts of coal mining. One example is SELC’s support of the state of Tennessee’s petition submitted to the Department of the Interior in October 2010 to declare the ridge tops of state lands on the Plateau as off-limits to surface coal mining. 

After years of study, in December 2016 the Department of the Interior designated approximately 75, 000 acres of mountain ridgelines as unsuitable for surface coal mining operation. These areas contain most of the older-growth forests that exist in the area, as well as an array of habitats and wildlife, including rare and threatened species. The lands are managed by the state of Tennessee for hunting, hiking, wildlife viewing, and other outdoor recreational activities. The Tennessee Valley Authority and a number of private coal companies own the rights to coal deposits below these lands. Because a "lands unsuitable" designation only applies to surface mining, they could still conduct underground mining and surface mining outside of the ridge tops of the designated area.

A National Park, Rivers, and Songbirds at Stake

The rivers and streams of the northern Cumberland Plateau harbor one of the highest concentrations of endangered species in North America. They provide vital breeding habitat for almost a third of all surviving Cerulean warblers, a migratory songbird whose numbers have declined more than 80 percent in the past four decades.

The New River watershed is part of this region, and forms the primary drainage to the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area, a natural treasure and major economic force for nearby communities. In creating the national park, Congress called for coordinated efforts by federal and state agencies to minimize water quality impacts, including siltation and acid drainage from mining occurring beyond the park boundary. By restricting surface mining in the watershed upstream of the park, the Department of Interior’s designation will have the added benefit of helping to protect park resources.  Mining upstream in the New River watershed has already affected resources in the park, and several species are at risk from continued mining. 

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