By Kari Lydersen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 26, 2009
The lush, rolling contours of the Great Smoky Mountains are Tennessee's pride and joy, and a major source of tourism revenue. But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) says he is afraid of seeing those mountains transformed by the region's coal industry -- their tops blasted off for mining, rivers clogged with debris and majestic forests cloaked in smog from coal-burning power plants instead of the Smokies' famous mists.
Alexander has introduced legislation with Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) to ban the controversial practice of mountaintop-removal coal mining. He said he hopes to stop the shearing of mountaintops in West Virginia and Kentucky and prevent a resurgence of the practice in Tennessee, which has relatively little mining but was the site of mountaintop removal in decades past.
But miners in neighboring states are striking back, boycotting tourism in Tennessee in an attempt to punish a politician they say is threatening their jobs while his state relies on coal from elsewhere for the majority of its electric power. Tennessee produced 2.3 million tons of coal last year, compared with 158 million tons in West Virginia and 120 million tons in Kentucky.
"This is nothing against the people of Tennessee, but we will not spend money in Tennessee as long as they have an individual like Lamar Alexander who is not looking at the whole picture of how what he does affects other people," said Roger Horton, a West Virginia miner. He hatched the boycott idea with fellow miners on a bus returning from a June 25 Senate committee hearing on the Alexander-Cardin Appalachian Restoration Act.
Horton, who works at a mountaintop-removal site for Apogee Coal, in the past enjoyed visiting the Knoxville Zoo, Dollywood, the Forbidden Caverns and other Tennessee attractions. But he said he would stay away as long as Alexander pushes limits on mountaintop-removal mining, and he maintained that about 7,000 miners and their families are doing the same.
Dollywood spokesman Pete Owens said miners make up a significant portion of the park's visitors. But he said he believes the economy is curbing out-of-state visits much more than the boycott. Two coal companies, including a West Virginia subsidiary of Arch Coal, canceled picnics at Dollywood.
"We can see both sides of the argument, and we seem to be caught in the middle," Owens said. "We see the economics from a business standpoint, but we see the other side as well. Protecting the beauty of the area would be something important to us here in the Smokies."
Mountaintop-removal opponents applaud Alexander's efforts. Larry Gibson hopes Alexander will visit his West Virginia land, which is surrounded by mountaintop-removal sites. For years, Gibson has been resisting attempts by Massey Energy to mine his land.
He says people acting on behalf of the company have tried to intimidate him into selling. He blames Massey supporters for killing his dogs and vandalizing his property. A Massey spokesperson said company officials were not able to comment.
"I think Lamar is a brave, brave guy to come out against the coal industry," Gibson said. "They intimidate people and influence them. I wouldn't put anything past them."
Lorelei Scarbro, a community organizer with the West Virginia group Coal Mountain River Watch, said its members will visit Tennessee to counter the boycott.
"We don't have a senator with the courage to stand up to the coal industry," said Scarbro, 54, whose husband died of black lung disease after mining for 35 years. "Whenever I have a couple days off, I will head to Tennessee to show support for the courage of Senators Alexander and Cardin."
The bill would effectively end mountaintop removal by amending the Clean Water Act to prohibit the dumping of mining waste in streams. It would allow other types of open-pit, surface mining.
The Great Smoky Mountains National Park has the worst air quality of any national park, thanks in part to nearby coal-burning power plants, according to a 2004 study by the National Parks Conservation Association.
Alexander has introduced legislation with Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) to reduce the sulfur, nitrogen and mercury emissions of coal-burning power plants, which provide about 60 percent of Tennessee's power. "We have the technology to burn coal cleanly," he said.
At the Senate hearing last month, Alexander described coal as "an essential part of our energy future," and he has pushed for "a mini-Manhattan project" for research into carbon capture and sequestration to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants.
He is a big proponent of nuclear power, which provides a third of Tennessee's energy. He also supports wind energy in general, but opposes proposals for wind farms in the Appalachian Mountains.
"Just like mountaintop removal, I think dirty air and 50-story wind turbines all destroy the mountaintops and make living less enjoyable and drive away tourists," he said.