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Miners, Environmentalists Battle Over Coal in Tennessee

Whatever else there is to be said about mountaintop mining (and there’s plenty), no one can deny that it makes a place ugly. How could it not? The technique involves the blasting away of mountain peaks to get at the coal inside, leaving oceans of bare dirt and rock that resemble the surface of the moon much more than they do the lush, green Appalachian hills they once were.

Not terribly interested in seeing his Smoky Mountains become moonscapes, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has been an active supporter of eliminating mountaintop removal in favor of techniques less damaging to the environment. Indeed, Alexander and Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) have introduced legislation that would effectively end the practice. After all, the Smokies are a magnet of tourism, and what visitor wants to come to the mountains only to find a sea of mud?

Turns out, there are a few.

Based on Alexander’s opposition to mountaintop removal, miners in surrounding states have vowed recently to boycott the entire state of Tennessee. The Washington Post last month talked to one of the creators of the movement.

“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.

The miners, it turns out, had reason to be feeling vindictive after that hearing. That’s because a large group of environmentalists and community activists — many traveling from Eastern Kentucky and Southern West Virginia — arrived hours before the hearing began, formed a long line outside the door, and filled all the seats when the doors were opened. The miners, stuck at the end of the line, were forced to watch the proceedings on a television from an overflow room. One community activist said afterward that the miners were none too happy to hear that they wouldn’t be allowed to watch the show live. “They’re not used to not getting their way,” the activist said.

Meanwhile, the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group that claims 1.2 million “members and activists,” is calling on those folks to visit Tennessee as a counter-punch to the miners’ boycott. “We commend Senator Lamar Alexander for his leadership and we will continue to support his home state and its irreplaceable natural resources,” Frances Beinecke, NRDC president, said Thursday in a statement.

Alexander, for his part, has dismissed the boycott threat, arguing that the threat to tourism if the mountains are decimated is the much larger concern. “Every year, millions of tourists come to Tennessee and spend millions of dollars to see our scenic mountaintops,” he told The New York Times, “not to see mountains whose tops have been blown off and dumped into streams.”

It’s worth noting that Alexander has shown much more courage taking on the powerful coal industry than the Obama administration has.

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