- Associated Press - Friday, April 13, 2018

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A bill that would take coal mining regulation away from the federal government and put it back in the hands of the state of Tennessee is now headed to the governor, but it faces concerns from environmentalists and state officials.

The measure was sponsored by lawmakers who have been fighting for the change for the last several years. They argued that it would speed up the process of granting permits to coal mining companies and bring good-paying jobs to economically distressed rural areas.

Tennessee is currently the only state where strip mining is still regulated by federal authorities. The federal government took responsibilities away from the state in 1984. A story by the Associated Press that year cited complaints of a lack of inspectors in Tennessee and a state official admitting that “local health department folks” were doing the job because they couldn’t hire enough mine inspectors because the state wasn’t paying enough.

If Gov. Bill Haslam signs the bill into the law, regulation of the strip mining will transfer from the Federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. It would then be up to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation to regulate the industry.

Relying on the federal government to regulate the industry means that it can take four to five years for a company to get a permit to mine coal in Tennessee, Rep. Dennis Powers, R-Jacksboro, told fellow lawmakers this week. He pointed out that it only takes eight to 12 months to get a permit in Kentucky, and the lengthy wait for one in Tennessee is discouraging investment.

“Now is the time to take back the authority and put people back to work like we know how to do,” Powers said.

Under the bill, the federal government would pay half the cost of enforcement to the state - $2.5 million annually -and the other half would be paid by fees imposed on coal companies, Ken Yager, R-Kingston, told fellow lawmakers.

State officials are concerned that it will ultimately wind up costing the state money, because the fees won’t come because of the decline in coal production.

The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation is opposed to the legislation.

“Due to the trajectory of coal production in the state and the funding ratio set forth in the legislation, TDEC is concerned that there will not be sufficient revenue generated to adequately fund the program and that state general fund dollars will ultimately be necessary, TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski said in an email. “TDEC does not currently have the surface coal mining expertise to administer the program and would need to hire staff to implement the legislation in accordance with federal requirements.”

Yager told fellow lawmakers that Kentucky hasn’t had a problem getting money from coal companies.

It’s not clear if Haslam will sign the bill. A spokeswoman for the governor did not immediately return an email seeking comment.

A coalition of 20 environmental groups sent Haslam a letter asking him to veto it.

They are concerned that the state won’t have enough resources to regulate the industry. And while they say they sympathize with the need for good-paying jobs in rural areas, they say relying on a declining industry is not the way to do it.

“It is not coincidence that the most economically and socially disadvantaged communities in Appalachia are the ones that have been dependent the coal industry,” said Axel Ringe, conservation chair for the Tennessee Chapter of the Sierra Club. “What we want to see for those communities is a diversified and sustainable economy and that’s not going to happen with coal mining.”

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