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Tennessee Republican Calls for Eliminating, Not Just Restricting, Mountaintop Mining

Environmentalists might be applauding the Obama administration’s new restrictions on mountaintop coal mining as the most significant step the government has ever taken to rein in the practice. But don’t tell that to Sen. Lamar Alexander. The Tennessee Republican is calling for a full ban (not just tighter limits) on the dumping of mining waste into Appalachian streams — a prohibition that Tennessee has had on the books for years.

Conveniently, Alexander has a bill that would do just that. The legislation, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), would redefine mining waste as a pollutant, thus barring companies from dumping debris into valleys below their mountaintop projects. The idea is that if it becomes too expensive to truck the debris off-site, then companies will stop blowing up mountains altogether.

“The new EPA guidelines are useful in stopping some inappropriate coal mining in Appalachia but Congress still needs to pass the Cardin-Alexander legislation that would effectively end mountaintop removal mining,” Alexander said in a statement issued Thursday. “By mountaintop removal, we mean blowing the tops off of mountains and dumping the waste in streams.”

Such statements put Alexander at odds with a number of Appalachian lawmakers, who view any new environmental protections in coal country as a threat to jobs in the region. But there’s good reason why Alexander has adopted his position. Tennessee is home to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, by far the most visited national park in the country. Last year, nearly 9.5 million people visited the Great Smoky, compared to 4.3 million visitors to the Grand Canyon, which ranks second.

Considering those tourism numbers, Tennessee’s lawmakers have no interest in wrecking the same mountains that are drawing those people in. Indeed, they’ve discovered a way to create sustainable local jobs without poisoning their waters and communities.

“Coal is an essential part of our energy future,” Alexander said, ”but it is not necessary to destroy our mountaintops in order to have enough coal to meet our needs.”

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