Miners, Environmentalists Stand at the Ready as Interest in Coal Reignites

With the comeback of Tennessee's coal industry comes renewed resistance. Environmental activists have geared up in opposition to mountaintop mining, which allows companies to slice off the tops of some of the oldest mountains on earth.

SMOKY JUNCTION, Tenn. — Just about every morning, Harold Junior "Red John" Newport wedges his chunky frame into a mud-spattered black Chevy truck and drives down to the store run by William and Clara Hembree at this remote mountain crossroads.

He'll pull up alongside the end of the porch, open his door and shoot the bull with anyone who happens to drop by. Newport's a 65-year-old retired coal truck driver with a craggy face, owlish eyebrows and sky blue eyes. Throughout the day, he alternates between smoking Swisher Sweets cigars and chewing Red Man tobacco.

As he talks, coal trucks rumble past and turn left at the crossroads, heading for National Coal Corp.'s processing plant a few hundred yards away. Retired since 1994, Newport gets by on a $626 Social Security check every month.

"I started hauling coal in '75," Newport said one rainy April morning. "I worked all my life and I don't draw anything."

Like Newport, Tennessee's coal industry has seen better financial days. Production has fallen more than 75 percent since its peak at 11 million tons in 1972. The mountains yielded only 2.7 million tons last year, according to the U.S. Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement.

Back in 1985, Newport was one of the 2,622 people the U.S. Energy Information Administration reports were working in coal mines in 22 Tennessee counties along the Cumberland Plateau. By 2003, only 567 people worked in the coalfields -- less than the enrollment at Huntsville's Scott High School.

But Tennessee's coal industry, spurred by skyrocketing coal prices, new technologies and the Tennessee Valley Authority's possible leasing of its mineral rights in Campbell and Scott counties, could be poised for a comeback. New operators have bought existing mines and invested millions in new equipment, breathing new life into the coalfields.

With the new activity comes renewed resistance. Environmental activists have geared up in opposition to mountaintop mining, which allows companies to slice off the tops of some of the oldest mountains on earth.

Water quality in the New River, which is just now recovering from past mining, could be threatened. The New River feeds the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, the centerpiece of the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area.

The land bears the scars of past mining. Throughout this region where the Cumberland Plateau breaks up into low but rugged peaks, the legacy of coal mining shows itself as great gouges in the flanks of the mountains.

Highwalls soar above pits filled with sulfur water and mountaintops are ringed with shelves, making them look like green top hats. Children visiting the Big South Fork take home small chunks of coal washed down from long-abandoned mines down to Leatherwood Ford.

Smoky Junction is a speck of coal dust on a map of Scott County, about 45 miles northwest of Knoxville. Aside from the Hembree's store, which doesn't have a sign but does have a worn wooden bench on the front porch, there's little more than the Missionary Baptist Church on the hill across the road, a handful of small frame houses and the coal processing plant.

The crossroads is a stone's throw from the confluence of Smoky Creek and New River, where the competing interests of coal miners and environmentalists flow together toward an uncertain future.

Coal lights America's homes, keeps its heat and air systems humming, runs its computers, and powers its factories and office buildings. More than half the country's electricity is generated by coal. In the Tennessee Valley, six out of every 10 lamps burn because of coal.

The United States possesses more recoverable coal reserves than any nation on Earth. According to a 2003 Congressional Research Service report, accessible coal reserves are estimated at 274 billion tons, enough to last 2? centuries at current production levels. The Office of Surface Mining estimates Tennessee's recoverable reserves at 69 million tons, though officials say the actual amount could be higher with today's mining technology.

The coal in the Cumberland Mountains was formed in the boggy climes of the Earth's prehistory. Some 320 million years ago, the landscape was flat and swampy, with dense forests of scale trees towering 115 feet above lush ferns.

A warming climate melted ice caps and flooded the swamps. The plant life -- all those scale trees, early conifers and ferns -- decayed into peat. Mountains formed and wore away over time. Millions of years of heat and pressure transformed the peat into coal.

People began mining coal in East Tennessee in the 19th century, with a spike in activity following the Civil War to feed the iron foundries and steel mills that popped up in places like Rockwood and Knoxville. In the 20th century, coal production in Tennessee followed a boom-and-bust cycle tied to America's involvements in the two world wars.

Tennessee's coal seams, which are typically only up to 4 feet thick, are cramped and dangerous places for underground miners to work. Cave-ins and explosions, like the Fraterville disaster that killed 216 miners in 1902, came with the job. So did black lung disease.

In the second half of the 20th century, coal companies began using heavy equipment to strip the earth to uncover coal instead of delving deep into the ground. Many operators left dangerous highwalls, fouled water and acid-laced soil.

The federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, passed in 1977, curbed those excesses, even as Tennessee's coal industry entered its long period of decline. The environmental degradation remains.

Due north of Smoky Junction, near state Highway 63, Straight Fork tumbles down Atkins Mountain toward the New River. Nimble as a goat, Dave Turner, an environmental specialist with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, scrambles over rocks at the confluence of Straight Fork and an unnamed tributary that springs from an abandoned underground mine.

"Now, this stream is in good shape," Turner said, pointing up Straight Fork. Turning his attention to the spot at his feet where the tributary joins the creek, he added, "During high flow times, the whole stream turns orange right at this point."

The water flowing from the mine, laced with acid and heavy metals, has left a rust-colored coating on the smooth stones of the creek. The acidic water has killed all the life in Straight Fork for the next six miles, Turner said.

Acid mine drainage is one of the more serious environmental hazards from coal mining. Mining operations expose iron pyrite to oxygen and water, a reaction that produces sulfuric acid. The runoff poisons streams.

Other environmental effects of past mining include dangerous cliffs created by strip mining called highwalls, polluted spoil excavated from strip mines and dangerous portals into underground mines.

Since the passage of the 1977 surface mining law, mining companies have been required to reclaim mines as they finish extracting the coal. Previously, however, companies would just leave once the coal played out.

Throughout the Cumberlands, coal companies carved thousands of highwalls in the mountains, and at many of them water has pooled into stagnant and sometimes poisonous ponds.

Straight Fork won't be cleaned up anytime soon. Turner said it would cost millions of dollars to neutralize the acid and restore the stream to life, and priority for cleanup funding goes to sites that pose a threat to the health or safety of humans first.

Tennessee has spent $27 million cleaning up abandoned mine sites over the past two decades, but officials say they would have to spend another $27 million to clean up all the problems.

Tim Eagle, who runs the state's reclamation program, said it would take $14.2 million to clean up just the sites that pose imminent health and safety risks. "We're trying to pick away at most of the environmental problems," Eagle said.

Reclamation money comes from the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, but Tennessee only receives a fraction of the pot -- between $1 million and $1.5 million a year. That's because the state abdicated its regulatory role over coal mining to the OSM in 1984.

In contrast, the state of Iowa receives at least $1.5 million each year, even though OSM records show Iowa hasn't produced any coal in the past decade and its historic production is a fraction of Tennessee's output.

Eagle said the state sometimes uses its federal money as matching funds for grants from other agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The federal funding, however, could end this year. The Abandoned Mine Lands program expired last year and Congress has given it two extensions, but sectional rivalries could scuttle the funding.

Mining operators fund the program through a fee, currently 35 cents a ton for strip-mined coal and 10 cents a ton for deep-mined coal. But operators in Western states, which don't have pre-1977 abandoned mines, don't want to pay for reclamation projects in the East. Some of the proposals to reauthorize the program would funnel more money to Tennessee, but attempts to reach a compromise have failed so far.

Reclaimed mines can sometimes be used to boost the economy. In Oneida, more than $2.4 million in state and federal money has gone into the Bear Creek Watershed Project, which will leave the city with new soccer fields, walking trails and other recreational facilities. Bear Creek is one of five watersheds participating in the Appalachian Clean Streams Program, which aims to mitigate waterway damage caused by acid mine drainage.

"They've done an amazing job up there," Eagle said.

An old Campbell County mine alongside Interstate 75 was turned into an industrial park for the city of Caryville. Two manufacturing plants, which together employ half as many people as the entire coal mining industry, are located on the old Sugar Ridge Coal Company mine.

Mining operators sometimes treat acidic water by adding quick lime to the water, a labor-intensive method that must be maintained indefinitely.

At the Sugar Ridge site, however, a wetland treats the highly acidic water leaching into Bruce Creek, a feeder for Cove Lake. Installed in 1995 and paid for by TVA, the system consists primarily of an anoxic limestone drain, which consists of hundreds of tons of buried limestone.

"If you keep it oxygen deprived," Turner said, "the limestone keeps reacting with the acid mine drainage and treats it."

The water, which initially has a pH of about 3, moves through the drain and a series of ponds, where bacteria help filter out heavy metals like iron and magnesium. By the time the water leaves the system, its pH is a healthy 7, Turner said. That's clean enough to attract beavers and other wildlife.

The price for central Appalachian coal has more than doubled since 2003 and has been hovering between $50 and $60 a ton during the spring.

Jim Thompson of Knoxville-based Energy Publishing LLC, which publishes the daily Coal & Energy Price Report and other industry newsletters, credits higher demand caused by an improving economy with driving up the price. He predicted that coal prices might drop somewhat, but not so far as to make Tennessee coal unattractive.

"That bodes well for Tennessee coal, because what's available to mine in Tennessee is pretty high-cost stuff," Thompson said. "As long as prices stay above $40 (per ton), it makes more sense for Tennessee coal to be mined."

Permitting activity surged last year. Not counting renewals, OSM reported receiving 10 new permit applications and 13 transfers for the year ending on Sept. 30, 2004. The agency handled six new applications and only one transfer the previous year.

"There certainly seems to be more interest in production here," said Tim Dieringer, director of the Knoxville field office of the OSM.

Tennessee has 24 active coal mines, with 17 of them being surface operations. Another 30 sites have permits, but have temporarily ceased activity. Just three companies -- Mountainside Coal Co., Appolo Fuels Inc. and National Coal -- account for more than half the active mines.

Some older operators, cash-strapped from a decade in the doldrums, have sold out to new concerns like National Coal, which formed in 2003. Three of National Coal's 10 mines are in Tennessee. National Coal CEO Jon Nix initially agreed to be interviewed for this story, but later changed his mind.

According to its annual report, National Coal ended 2004 more than $10 million in the red, much of it due to acquisition and start-up costs, but the company has long-term contracts that will bring in $130 million through 2008.

None of those contracts is with the region's largest coal purchaser. TVA isn't buying one chunk of Tennessee coal right now.

Richard Rea, TVA's coal acquisition and supply manager, said the agency buys up to 45 million tons of coal each year, but only around 15 percent comes from central Appalachia. About 45 percent is cheaper, low-sulfur coal from Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. Another 40 percent comes from southern Illinois and western Kentucky.

"Sulfur content plays a big role because of the environmental compliance we're required to follow," Rea said.

Coal seams in Tennessee are small and follow irregular contours, while coal beds in Wyoming can be up to 100 feet thick.

"It's a much lower cost to mine seams that are that thick, as opposed to the seams in East Tennessee that are 3- to 4-feet thick," Rea said. "It's tough mining conditions."

Still, Rea said that TVA's installation of scrubbers at its power plants should enable the utility to burn higher-sulfur coal while still meeting federal emissions targets, possibly opening the door for Tennessee producers.

Thompson said TVA's installation of scrubbers would "level the playing field" for higher sulfur Tennessee coal.

"It certainly creates the opportunity for Tennessee suppliers," Thompson said. "Then it becomes a matter of price."

H.E. Hearn is one of the old hands in Tennessee's coalfields. A 67-year-old with an engineering degree from the University of the South, he has been in the mining business for almost four decades.

Despite selling his Cumberland County mine earlier this year to a Canadian firm, Hearn is bullish on the coal business.

"I think the coal industry is on solid foundation and is pressed to produce every ounce of coal it can," Hearn said. "I think the industry is under great demand to produce coal. We're seeing unprecedented need at this time."

New technologies are allowing operators to reach seams their predecessors couldn't. Highwall miners, which are huge machines with augers that bore deep into a mountain to reach coal once accessible only via underground mines, are now being used in Tennessee.

At National Coal's Zeb Mountain mine in Campbell County, machinery is slicing off three of the mountain's peaks to get to the coal.

Environmentalists object to the technique, called cross-ridge mining, because they say it could lead to complete mountaintop removal. Mining regulators counter that Tennessee law forbids coal companies from dumping spoil into valleys with streams.

Unlike mountaintop removal in West Virginia and Kentucky, where operators basically cut off the top of a mountain and dump the spoil into valleys to create massive plateaus, cross-ridge mining calls on operators to rebuild the peaks to their "approximate original contours."

Reclamation work is already under way at a completed portion of the Zeb Mountain mine. Appolo Fuels has completed reclamation at a mine in Claiborne County. Terraced to control drainage, the summit of Horseshoe Mountain now rises like a grassy ziggurat out of the forest. At both Horseshoe and Zeb Mountain, reclamation plans call for the full reforestation of the peaks.

Roxie Sells lives on Highway 63 at Jake's Branch, a couple of ridges over from Smoky Junction. At 75, she's survived floods and fought forest fires. She was raised in a tin-roofed cabin in Valley Creek in Claiborne County, but her family was thrown off the company-owned land in 1963 when the mine operator decided to strip mine the area.

"I get so homesick for Valley Creek," she recalled as she rocked in a chair in her living room, a framed photograph of her mother and father in front of their old cabin on the wall behind her. "You wouldn't believe how beautiful it used to be, to look at it now."

A woman who looks closely at the natural world and notices the "shadows of clouds playing over the mountains," Sells is dead-set against the idea of strip-mining on Braden Mountain, which is behind her house and could be mined if TVA moves forward with leasing the mineral rights there.

"It just tears me up. It reminds me of Valley Creek when they started that stripping," she said, pouring contempt on the last word as though it's a sinful act, something done in a seedy bar and not in the green folds of the Cumberlands.

Sells is active with Save Our Cumberland Mountains, the primary environmental advocacy group opposing coal mining in Tennessee. SOCM set up shop more than three decades ago in the heart of coal country -- Lake City, formerly known as Coal Creek. Its office is just off the main drag marked only by a bumper sticker affixed to the doorway.

In the kitchen office in the back, a geologist and former newspaper editor named Charles "Boomer" Winfrey, a 30-year SOCM member, recounts fistfights and shouting matches that greeted SOCM members in the early days of their activism.

"We were the radicals in the environmental community," Winfrey said. "We thought you could ban strip-mining."

Now they'll settle for a strict application of federal and state laws.

"With these more drastic methods, there's no way they can take coal out without trashing the watershed," said Cathie Bird, a 57-year-old psychoanalyst who lives in Frog Pond Hollow. "If the laws are being enforced, that should take care of mountaintop mining."

SOCM and other groups have long complained that OSM allows mining companies too much leeway in interpreting laws and regulations.

"Anybody who's been close to nature wants to protect it," said Charles Blankenship, who has worked in the region's mines, hunted its forests and fished its streams. "These mining companies have been getting away with murder since the law took effect, for the simple reason there's a lack of enforcement."

Dieringer, who took over as head of OSM's Knoxville field office in December, said he's aware of environmentalists' concerns about lax enforcement.

"I'm personally going out on sites and seeing if that's the case," Dieringer said. "I'm still assessing it."

According to OSM's annual report for Tennessee, the agency conducted 825 complete inspections and 906 partial inspections in the year ending Sept. 30, 2004, resulting in written notices covering 65 violations and one order to cease operations. TDEC, which enforces water quality laws, cited coal companies for 22 violations in 2004.

SOCM and other environmental groups have filed a lawsuit in federal court to block mountaintop mining on Zeb Mountain. The thrust of the lawsuit is that the OSM erred in issuing the mining permit.

Sara Gagen, 61, lives in a log house in a gated community called Campbell Highlands on an old strip mine shelf on Sexton Mountain in Campbell County. To the northeast, National Coal is eating into Zeb Mountain.

"What's funny is, we built our house backwards so we could have that view," Gagen said.

The Gagens -- her husband, Don, runs a railroad produce transit company in LaFollette -- had to drill two wells on their property to get drinkable water. Gagen said the previous mining destroyed the water table, making obtaining clean drinking water a hit-or-miss proposition.

"I don't understand the logic in not developing the land, but destroying it," Gagen said. "Development brings in as many jobs, if not more."

Mining jobs can be lucrative, especially in economically depressed communities. Thompson said an electrician could make close to $100,000 at a strip mine. The average salary for a coal miner in Tennessee is close to $50,000.

Still, Winfrey said, since the industry employs fewer workers each year.

"The coal industry has more clout in some of these counties than it has a right to have," Winfrey said. "You're never going to see the jobs in coal you once did."

With coal prices at levels not seen for decades, TVA is putting together an environmental impact statement for the possible lease of its mineral rights on 53,000 acres in and around the Royal Blue Wildlife Management Area. Known as the Koppers holdings, the area could contain as much as 84 million tons coal, according to TVA, which would more than double the state's recoverable reserves.

Ruth Horton, who is handling the environmental impact statement for TVA, said the agency is looking at all its options, from selling the rights to leasing some or all of the rights to not mining at all.

"We anticipate an increased demand for this coal because of the market, but that may or may not materialize," Horton said. "Whatever management plan we choose will determine which way we will go."

Much of the land has been mined previously. The once-dead New River has made a remarkable comeback in recent years, officials say, to the delight of area anglers.

"They have expressed how tickled they are (that) smallmouth have come back," said Royal Blue manager Stan Stooksbury. "I've heard they've caught walleye."

The prospect of renewed mining concerns many people, especially since more than half the land drains into the New River watershed.

Don Barger of the National Parks Conservation Association noted that Congress ordered agencies to address upstream water quality problems in authorization legislation for the Big South Fork.

"Congress said, 'Fix it,'" Barger said. "They didn't. They're getting ready to add a new problem without fixing the old one."

In addition to acid mine drainage, sediment from mining and its attendant road building can cause more problems. Even reclaimed areas aren't immune. Earlier this year, a massive landslide near Smoky Junction from a reclaimed site dumped sediment that clouded the New River for miles.

"Once you put sediment into a water system, it continues downstream," Barger said. "You can dilute acid mine drainage, but you can't dilute sediments."

Officials say one possible benefit of mining TVA's Koppers holdings would be that operators would likely mine areas scarred from past mining. Eagle said re-mining would eventually result in the reclamation of abandoned mine lands at the expense of the operators and not the taxpayers.

Back at the Hembrees' store, while Newport holds court at the end of the porch, Clara Hembree is inside making white-bread sandwiches for customers at a scarred wood-and-glass counter. The store is so remote that the only supplier who ventures back to it on the gravel roads is the potato chip man. For everything else -- milk, canned oysters, assorted hardware, pickled bologna, pig's feet, tuna and Bruton's Snuff -- 73-year-old William Hembree drives all the way to Knoxville and back again.

Clara Hembree grew up five miles away and never learned how to drive. A short woman with silver hair and eyes that shine like polished acorns, she's spent every one of her 68 years in Smoky Junction, the last 49 married to William.

"There's been quite a bit of coal come out of here," Hembree said. "Mining and logging, that's all there is to do around here."

The benches carved into the surrounding mountains are monuments to mining's past. Its future will be determined elsewhere.

The political wrangling over abandoned mine lands funding drags on in Washington, D.C. In a Knoxville courtroom, a judge will rule on continued mining on Zeb Mountain. Also in Knoxville, TVA executives will decide what to do with the Koppers holdings.

Meanwhile, as Clara Hembree makes sandwiches, the New River flows. When it rains, sediments from landslides cloud the water, threatening to smother all life between the banks. Acid, diluted as creek joins creek, finds its way to the river.

Trucks continue to arrive at National Coal's processing plant, where sulfur, rock and ash will be removed from the coal. The waste will be dumped in a nearby dry hollow, while the usable coal will be trucked to a tipple for loading into rail cars for delivery to power plants and other customers.

Coal burns in steam plants and electrons zing along power lines. Smelters glow with activity. Assembly lines hum and lighted signs beckon customers to air-conditioned malls.

And in houses and apartments all across the country, people who have neither seen nor heard of Smoky Junction flip on their lights, adjust their thermostats and settle down on the couch to watch "Desperate Housewives."

To see more of The Knoxville News-Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.knoxnews.com.

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News