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Hearing on Claiborne County Coal Mine Next Tuesday, May 6

You might remember that last fall we wrote a story about coal mining in Claiborne County, and about how some of the residents there are fighting a couple of proposed new mines.

According to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, there are 20 permitted coal mines in Tennessee, although only four or five are actively mining, given the current low price of coal. Sixty percent of those mines are in Campbell and Claiborne Counties. (The rest are in Anderson, Cumberland, and Fentress Counties.) It's been this way for over a century--coal is a way of life around here, and it's hard to find a person who doesn't have some kind of connection to the industry, even if he never worked in the mines himself.

Yet despite the poverty in the region, and the desperate need for jobs, coal isn't king of everyone's hearts the way it once was. As two companies look to move forward with new mines that could consume over 3,000 acres, some longtime residents are teaming with environmental activists to fight the permits. A handful of temporary jobs, they say, isn't worth the permanent destruction of their mountains and streams.

"How much coal do these mountains really got in 'em?" says Russell Worley, one of a few natives of the area who have found themselves in the unlikely position of opposing the new mines. "They been doin' it for this long--maybe it's time to just give something a break. Our state don't produce that much coal anyway."

Well, one of those mines, Kopper Glo's proposed 578-acre Clear Fork Surface Mine on King Mountain near Clairfield, is up for a joint hearing next week, with members of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, the federal Office of Surface Mining, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in attendance. (However, the OSM has actually already approved a surface mining permit (SMCRA) for the mine in February, after a separate public hearing that office held on its own.)

This particular mine site has drawn a number of complaints from environmentalists due to its proximity to sensitive habitat. As Cathie Bird writes over on the Society for Community eMpowerment blog:

Many streams in Claiborne County already show high levels of conductivity (bad for fish and aquatic life) as a result of the mining-related pollutants. The Clear Fork mine would discharge pollutants into headwaters of three streams at 14 different discharge points.

One of the streams that would receive discharges from the mine, Straight Creek, has an Exceptional Tennessee Waters designation because it is home for the Blackside Dace. Listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the Blackside Dace can be hurt by toxic metals such as those released during coal mining operations. Clear Fork Creek is also a protected zone that serves as a migration corridor for this fish.

The Tennessee Clean Water Network, the Sierra Club, and others appealed TDEC's notice of determination last summer. Kopper Glo withdrew its application, but then resubmitted it late last fall. And now it's moving forward under iffy circumstances, according to TCWN attorney Stephanie Matheny.

The state discharge (NPDES) permit got delayed by our antidegradation appeal, and Kopper Glo's resubmittal of the application, last summer. We also appealed TDEC's December 2013 antidegradation decision, but then dismissed that case after we got an adverse procedural ruling. 3 days after that order of dismissal was entered, TDEC gave public notice of this hearing even though - by law - it was not allowed to process the permit while our appeal was pending.

The hearing will be at TDEC's Knoxville field office on Middlebrook Pike at 6 p.m., Tuesday, May 6. A public meeting with discussion and permit review will happen from 3 to 5 p.m. And yes, that is Election Day, so we know you might be busy with other things -- don't worry! You can email or snail mail your comments on the proposed mine if you can't make the hearing. Just get them in before May 16.

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