To understand the coal industry, you must understand a bit of history. Part of that history goes back millions of years to the time when the Mississippi River Basin was an inland sea bordered by vast swamps. Those swamp beds compacted and petrified into layers of coal, some thick, some thin. As the North American plate lifted above sea level, much of this coal eroded away.
In Tennessee, coal seams tend to be thin, often too thin to be practically nor economically worth extracting. Only 22 of Tennessee's 95 counties have coal deposits, and only six counties have active mines. Most coal production in the state happens in Claiborne and Campbell counties. Coal played an important role in the history of Chattanooga and Sequatchie Valley, fueling iron production, but no active mines remain in that region. Seams were just a couple feet thick, so miners had to dig in a prone position. Work was slow and dangerous, and mines were abandoned as soon as it was feasible to bring in coal by rail.
Presently, Tennessee accounts for just one percent of Central Appalachian coal production, and virtually all Tennessee coal is consumed out of state. Our coal is high in sulfur, giving it an emissions profile that electricity generators shy away from, so it remains a specialty fuel used primarily in making steel or in other industrial processes requiring high temperatures. Tennessee imports 30 million tons of coal per year and produces 2 million tons.
In 2008, coal mining employed 558 workers, with demand and production on a steep decline. Surface mining accounts for 66 percent of production and 54 percent of jobs. Mountaintop removal mining offers the fewest jobs of any extraction method, relying more on explosives and heavy machinery than laborers. Since 1985, four out of five Tennessee coal-industry jobs have gone away due to the low quality and inaccessibility of remaining coal deposits.
Short of slavery, few industries have a more profound history of worker exploitation than coal. In West Virginia and Kentucky, there is an inverse relationship between the amount of coal in a county and the rate of poverty. Mining jobs carry high risks of fatality, injury and respiratory illness, and salaries simply do not match the health and social costs. Furthermore, mines often contaminate streams and land, making farming more difficult. The net result is tremendous wealth for mine owners, with little opportunity for workers to claim a fair share.
The industry created and sustained this wealth gap through political influence. The laws in big coal-mining states make it easy for mine operators to walk away from tragedy and pollution by using shell companies, and where the law itself has not been rigged, coal titans have simply paid off judges. The conglomerates that sit above the maze of shell companies and contractors are insulated from the risks and long-term costs of coal extraction.
Costs borne by taxpayers include repair of haul roads, monitoring of active and abandoned mines, reclamation and control of persistent pollution sources, water treatment or replacement where drinking supplies have been contaminated and diminished recreational, aesthetic and agricultural value of land. Much as with wages and poverty in coal communities, government expenses exceed revenues collected from the coal industry.
In Tennessee, coal companies have gotten themselves exempted from most sales taxes, to the point where the industry paid only $1.1 million in taxes on $114 million production in 2008. Severance taxes, kept by local governments, are 20 cents per ton, with the average price of coal in 2008 being $45 per ton. In 2009, the state legislature raised the severance tax to one dollar per ton, but delayed the increase until 2013.
While coal supplies were critical to manufacturing a century ago, coal mining now plays a vanishingly small role in the Tennessee economy. Moving into the future, coal will mainly be known by the legacy of pollution and destruction it has left behind. Nonetheless, the industry remains significant in other states, and Tennessee is an important political battleground. The industry lobbies heavily in Tennessee and gives generously to campaigns so they can fend off changes here that other states could imitate. Analysis by NewsChannel5 in Nashville showed that Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's 2010 gubernatorial campaign took $195,000 from coal interests. That is $20,000 more than the industry paid to the top coal-producing county in severance taxes.
This evening in Nashville, we will see whether this declining industry's political giving pays off. The state Senate is considering the Scenic Vistas Protection Act, which as originally written would end mining that alters any ridgeline over 2,000 feet elevation. Already the industry has interfered by convincing Cleveland Senator Mike Bell to entirely rewrite the bill so it is redundant with federal guidelines already enforced in the state. Still, this got the bill out of committee and onto the Senate floor, where it could be restored to original form or otherwise amended.
A Knoxville-based coalition of churches has been pushing to end mountaintop removal mining since 2009. Part of the Creation Care movement, Tennessee LEAF views mountains as God's handiwork and the scriptural appointment of man as stewards of Creation as a command to protect those mountains from destruction. To promote their bill, LEAF sponsored 40 Days of Prayer for the Mountains in December and January.
That effort must have had an impact on Pastor Michael McLaughlin of First Presbyterian in Manchester who, despite being unaffiliated with LEAF, concluded his March 1 invocation to the General Assembly with these words:
"Lord, for the sake of Tennessee’s health, economic prosperity, our environment, and our communities, keep in all our hearts and minds the truth that Tennessee is better than blowing the tops off of our mountains. Grant that we may continue to grow in our grateful enjoyment of your abundant creation, to the honor and glory of your name, now and forever through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen"