Coal company wants to mine on federally protected lands

A permit being considered by the federal Office of Surface Mining would threaten acres of ridgeline wildlife habitat in Tennessee’s North Cumberland Plateau that has been declared unsuitable for mining under federal law. (© Melinda Welton)

In December 2016, the U.S. Department of the Interior declared about 75,000 acres of East Tennessee ridgelines in the North Cumberland Plateau unsuitable for surface mining under federal law. Now, a coal mining company is requesting permission to mine on a portion of the protected area.

When the designation was announced three years ago, then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewel told the Knoxville News Sentinel it honored the state’s 2010 request to “protect the Cumberland Plateau’s majestic forests, mountains, and streams for future generations.” She added that the decision was “great news” for the hunters, anglers, hikers, and birders who come, year after year, to enjoy this “incredible place.”

Now, on behalf of those outdoor enthusiasts —and to protect vulernable species like the cerulean warbler who rely on the ridgeline habitat—SELC is asking the federal Office of Surface Mining to deny Triple H Coal’s request to mine 422 acres in the North Cumberland Plateau. Most of those acres fall within the area designated off-limits for new surface mining.

Home to the prized Cumberland Trail, the North Cumberland Plateau is known for its diverse habitats, headwater streams, and wildlife corridor. Black bear, elk, and songbirds such as the cerulean warbler enjoy—and depend on—the plateau’s water quality and wildlife habitat protections.

“Granting Triple H Coal’s proposed permit would not only pave the way for irreversible damage to a very special place, it would also be unlawful,” says Attorney Amanda Garcia, who manages SELC’s Tennessee office.

The Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act makes clear that new surface coal mining is prohibited in the federally-designated area of the North Cumberland Plateau. However, the agency continues to process Triple H’s permit application, and recently held a public hearing on the permit on October 15.

“Unfortunately, the course the administration appears to be following would undermine the federal government’s own intentions when it designated this portion of the North Cumberland Plateau as a protected, and special, place,” says Garcia.

She and Senior Attorney Deborah Murray submitted a letter to the agency October 14 pointing out its obligation to reject the application. To read the letter, click here.

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