KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — The Interior Department said Wednesday it is designating nearly 75,000 acres or more than 550 miles of mountain ridgelines in east Tennessee as unsuitable for future surface coal mining operations.
The department’s action comes at the request of the state, which said in a 2010 petition that mountaintop coal mining in the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area and Emory River Tract Conservation Easement would significantly damage the area’s natural resources and hurt its cultural, scientific and aesthetic value.
The ban protects 74,968 acres associated with 569 miles of ridgeline in Anderson, Campbell, Morgan and Scott counties. It helps protect an area that is “critical to the region’s tourism and outdoor recreation economy, provides valuable fish and wildlife habitat and supports a healthy watershed,” the department’s statement said.
“This is great news for the hunters, anglers, hikers and birders who come, year after year, to enjoy this incredible place,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said. “I applaud the state for their forward-looking vision that will help strengthen the local economy and help protect a critical watershed.”
The area provides habitat for black bear, elk and songbirds. The New and Emory Rivers run through the designated area and provide clean drinking water.
“This means these ridgetop landscapes – and the rivers, streams and forests that surround them – can continue to bring millions of tourists and thousands of jobs to Tennessee,” U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander said.
The National Mining Association is criticizing the decision. Its spokeswoman, Ashley Burke, said in a statement that the designation is an “unwarranted blow to our ability to responsibly utilize this nation’s domestic resources.”
“The U.S. already has the toughest, most comprehensive environmental regulations in the world, and there is therefore no need to resort to arbitrary and unwarranted land withdrawals,” Burke said.
She also said the move sets a “dangerous precedent for administrative overreach” and risks placing otherwise eligible lands off-limits to mining without any justification based on facts.
Tennessee’s petition said coal mining in the region would be incompatible with existing local and state land use plans and programs. The designation does not impact existing mining operations in the area.
The decision does make a limited exception for re-mining activities. It’s restricted to proposals that will provide environmental benefits, such as reclaiming abandoned mine lands and reducing the impacts of acid mine drainage and sedimentation.