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Strip Miners Get Their Way in Gore’s State

Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation, the New York Press and other publications

Almost everything you need to know about the political contradictions of Al Gore are summed up in the condition of 80,000 acres in his home state of Tennessee. At the heart of these acres in the Cumberland Mountains is the 30,000-acre Fall Creek Falls State Park, boasting the most glorious scenery in the state and the tallest waterfall east of the Rockies. Not far off is the ancestral tobacco farm of the Gore family. Young Al learned to love nature exploring the park in his boyhood years.

Yet now, to the rage of many of his fellow Tennesseans, Gore preserves a sphinx-like public silence as the park teeters on the verge of becoming an environmental wasteland, with acid-laced streams deadly to the trout that draw anglers from across the country, and the neighboring hillsides hideously scarred.

The threat comes in the form of strip mining for high-sulfur coal, the very kind that Gore most deplores when extracted in countries far away, like China. Adjacent to the southern border of the Fall Creek Falls State Park are 120,000 acres owned by the Huber Land Co., which is in the process of clear-cutting the deciduous timber--maple, beech, oak. Huber has leased the mining rights to Skyline Coal, which plans to gouge the coal out of the hillside in thousand-acre scoops 100 feet deep.

You don’t have to go far to see what lies in store for the watershed if Skyline Coal gets its way. For nine years the company has been stripping the same coal seam on the other side of the watershed. Local critics have pointed to acid and kindred toxic runoff into streams. Homeowners show cracked foundations they say were caused by the company’s blasting. Soon they will be stripping a site traversed by the Trail of Tears, a Tennessee historical monument.

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Tennessee is unique among the 50 states by dint of being the only one where the federal government has the primary responsibility for permitting strip mines, a regulatory function it assumed when it decreed a decade ago that the state of Tennessee was incompetent to handle this function. But these days the roles are strangely reversed. The feds, including Tennessee’s most prominent native son, Al Gore, are conniving in the most abusive of all forms of strip mining. Meanwhile the state’s governor, Don Sundquist, a conservative Republican, is foremost among the state park’s defenders and has lashed out furiously at the federal Office of Surface Mining, one of the prime villains in this story.

In 1995, a group of Tennessee working people in the area, many of them blue-collar and remote from any knee-jerk designation as “green zealots,” formed Save Our Cumberland Mountains. Foremost in their concerns was the sudden downswing of the local economy, based on garment factories, which has been ravaged by the North American Free Trade Agreement, hotly supported by Gore. NAFTA hastened the flight of these garment firms to Mexico. For economic salvation, the residents looked to the tourist industry, itself heavily dependent on the Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The group petitioned the Office of Surface Mining, now run by Kathy Karpan, a Gore political protege, to declare the 80,000-acre watershed feeding the park unsuitable for strip mining, under a 1976 conservation law. On the face of it, the group had a seemingly textbook case, but in May 1998, the Office of Surface Mining issued a draft environmental impact statement in which it refused to ban strip mining and said it would consider the matter only in the same incremental portions as Skyline Coal was proposing to extract. In other words, this is to be a piecemeal surrender to strip mining, far harder and more expensive to combat that any one overall decision.

How come Gore, no fool, is making so many enemies in his own state on an issue where the rights and wrongs are so self-evident? Here comes the final pointer to his political character. Like Bruce Babbitt, secretary of the Interior, Gore is terrified of the corporate “takings” argument. Inhibition of Skyline Coal’s “right” to strip mine would constitute a “takings"--that is, an affront to the sacred rights of property, before which all other rights--to breathe clean air, drink clean water, enjoy public assets--must bow down in homage. Gore duly bows in homage, and so right now things look very bad for Tennessee’s finest park and for the 5,000 people who live around it.

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