Tennessee Lands Unsuitable for Mining

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January 23, 2016

Earl D. Bandy, Jr., Field Office Director
Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement
John J. Duncan Federal Building 710 Locust Street, Second Floor
Knoxville, TN 37902

Subject: North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, Tennessee Lands Unsuitable for Mining

Draft Petition Evaluation Document/ Environmental Impact Statement, OSM-EIS-37

Dear Mr. Bandy:

I am writing to you on behalf of over 1,100 members of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks (Coalition). Our membership is composed entirely of retired, former, or current salaried employees of the National Park Service (NPS). As a group we collectively represent more than 30,000 years of national park management experience. The Coalition studies, educates, speaks, and acts for the preservation of America’s National Park System.

The purpose of this letter is to submit comments on the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area, Tennessee Lands Unsuitable for Mining Draft Petition Evaluation Document/ Environmental Impact Statement, OSM-EIS-37 (draft PED/EIS) prepared by the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). The draft PED/EIS evaluates the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area (NCWMA) and Emory River Tracts Conservation Easement (ERTCE) as it pertains to the Petition for Lands Unsuitable for Coal Mining filed by the State of Tennessee (State) on September 30, 2010. The State petitioned OSMRE to designate as unsuitable for surface coal mining operations 505 miles of ridgelines with a 1,200-foot corridor (600 feet on both sides of the ridge top). The petition area encompasses approximately 67,326 acres including much of the ridgeline areas found within NCWMA and ERTCE.

We count among our membership former National Park Service (NPS) employees of Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO) and Obed Wild and Scenic River (OBED). As a national parks advocacy group, our interest in the petition was initially based in large part on the fact that these two units of the National Park System lie downstream of the petition area and will inevitably be affected, whether positively or negatively, by whatever action is taken by OSMRE. As we have studied the petition and draft PED/EIS more closely, we have also come to appreciate the important ecological and recreational values of the NCWMA and ERTCE, as well as the economic benefits these conservation lands provide to the four-county area of Anderson, Campbell, Morgan, and Scott counties. In that context, we offer the following comments about the draft PED/EIS:

Conservation and Recreation Are the Highest and Best Uses of the Petition Area

The Coalition strongly supports the State’s petition and believes, in general, that it offers the most sustainable environmental and economic future for the four-county area that will be most affected by the proposed action. Numerous academic studies and land management case studies from around the United States have demonstrated that a healthy and aesthetically pleasing environment is a fundamental component of a prosperous tourism-based economy. In contrast, the adverse environmental impacts of surface mining are well known and described in detail throughout the draft PED/EIS.

The draft PED/EIS clearly documents that recreation and tourism are significantly more important than coal mining to the economy of the four-county area. Coal mining employment in Tennessee has declined sharply since 2009 (Figure 4-23). According to the Energy Information Administration, coal mining employment in Tennessee totaled 297 employees in 2013, only 135 of whom worked in surface mining (p. 4-122). English et al. 2012 estimated that if the petition were denied (as in Alternative A), between $5 million and $25 million would be generated in sales from coal production, which would support between 30 and 133 jobs in the four-county region (p. 6-392). On the other hand, since 2009 there has been growth in recreational visitation and visitor spending in Tennessee (p. 4-126). The four-county area draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region through its parks, wilderness areas, hiking, bike, horse, and off-highway vehicle trails, and other recreation resources. Visitors coming from outside of the local area spend approximately $177.4 million annually within the four-county area. (Table 4-42, p. 4-127)

In other words, the economic value of conservation and recreation in the petition area is $177.4 million annually, while the economic value of continued coal mining is estimated to be $5-25 million per year. Further, the drat PED/EIS notes that surface mining would shift over time from sites within the petition area to other sites in the evaluation area without affecting the level of production. Thus, the impact of an unsuitability designation would have no long-term effect on regional economic conditions (pp. 6-397, 6-400, 6-402, 6-405, and 6-407). Given the inevitable and substantial adverse impacts of continued coal mining versus the significant and sustained economic benefits of conservation and recreation, we believe that protecting the land and rivers and streams in the area, to the extent practicable, and ensuring the continuance of the diverse outdoor recreational opportunities offered in the area should be the top priorities and fundamental drivers of the OSMRE decision-making process.

The Analysis Significantly Underestimates Potential impacts to Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area (BISO)

A primary concern for the Coalition is the protection and preservation of the resources that led to the establishment of BISO. However, when Congress created BISO it included only lands at the lower end of the watershed. The boundaries of BISO contain only 14% of the lands within Big South Fork watershed, so activities upstream and outside park boundaries, such as in the petition area, greatly impact the water quality in the park. The streams in this watershed are important headwaters to BISO and support unique and ecologically valuable species of insects, fish, and salamanders, and are also critical to downstream functions and values. These headwater areas are crucial to preserve biological diversity and contribute directly to the water quality of the Big South Fork.

For the purposes of the analysis and comparison of alternatives, the draft PED/EIS estimated that surface runoff from mining operations would extend only 100 feet overland and that downstream effects would be diminished from any particular mine area within 6.2 miles downstream from the operation. The draft PED/EIS notes that the selection of these distances from potential mineable resources “does not mean that there would definitely be impacts within that distance or that there would never be impacts outside of that distance.” While the draft PED/EIS casts these distances as conservative, we believe that the distance (100 feet overland and 6.2 miles downstream), which the draft PED/EIS refers to as the “buffer area used to analyze alternatives,” is too restrictive and does not sufficiently acknowledge the potential of downstream impacts in BISO. Also, the draft PED/EIS appears to not account for the impact of haul roads and associated surface disturbances, which can be a major source of runoff contributing to sediments and turbidity, thus further underestimating the downstream effects of new mining or remining.

In the past, surface mining in the New River watershed has adversely affected BISO and the Big South Fork River through sediment loading, acid mine drainage, and associated impacts. The Coalition is concerned that any new surface mining (or remining) in the petition area, combined with the impacts from past and existing mining, could further impair the water quality in the New River and the Big South Fork, harming pollution-sensitive aquatic species and the natural and aesthetic values of BISO.

The impact of surface mining in the petition area on water quality downstream in BISO waters is of particular concern due to the presence of federally threatened and endangered mussel species in the New River and the Big South Fork. The Big South Fork provides habitat for seven mussel species that are federally listed as endangered, one species that is a federal candidate for listing, and one endangered state-listed species. In addition, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has designated twenty-seven miles of the main stem of the Big South Fork and nine miles of the New River downstream from the petition area as critical habitat for three mussel species that now exist in only a few small, isolated populations. When designating critical habitat for the endangered mussel species, the FWS identified mining as an activity that could adversely modify critical habitat in a manner likely to result in jeopardy to the species through the addition of sediment and acid-mine drainage to the watershed, leading to the degradation of water quality. BISO has more federally endangered fish and imperiled mussel species than any other unit (park) in the National Park System.

It is abundantly clear that mining within the watershed portion of the petition area is incompatible with the authorizing legislation for BISO, and with the 2005 BISO General Management Plan (GMP). The GMP makes clear that the recreational and economic values for which the Big South Fork is protected are tied to a broader area than contained within BISO’s boundaries. The GMP emphasizes the goal of managing BISO to provide healthful outdoor recreation for the enjoyment of the public and for the benefit of the regional economy. The recreational uses of BISO and the attendant economic benefits to the region are dependent upon high water quality of the Big South Fork, and would be undermined by renewed surface coal mining operations in the petition area.

Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area Should be Designated as “Fragile Lands”

Given the uniqueness, significance, and high quality of natural resources at BISO, we disagree with OSMRE’s decision in the draft PED/EIS not to designate BISO as “fragile lands.” OSMRE’s rationale for this decision, apparently, is simply because “the park is approximately 20 river miles away from the petition area” and “a study in West Virginia documented that impacts from mining diminished as the distance to upstream mining activities increased (Petty et al. 2010).”(p. 2-36). A careful reading of this study reveals that it reported variable findings depending on not only distance from mining (which is the part cited by OSMRE), but also depending on the “underlying coal geology.” That study included findings that “streams draining watersheds with Freeport coal geology had significantly poorer water quality and ecological condition than streams draining watersheds with similar mining intensity but with Kittanning coal geology.” http://www.uky.edu/~tmute2/geography_methods/readingPDFs/pettyetal_landscape-indicators-stream-eco-impair-appalachia2010.pdf)

Mine-related pollutants affecting BISO are known to travel greater distances than those evaluated in Petty et al, so the blanket dismissal of BISO from “fragile lands” consideration based merely on its distance downstream is not defensible. Further supporting the assertion that BISO should be designated as “fragile lands,” is the special status given to protection of the park’s resources under a variety of statutory authorities. These include:

  • SMCRA Section 522(e)(1), which protects “all lands within the boundaries of the National Park System, …the National System of Trails, …the Wild and Scenic Rivers System,…, and National Recreation Areas designated by Congress (30 USC § 1272(e)(1)).”
  • The NPS Organic Act of 1916 established the fundamental purpose of units of the National Park System, which is “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations” (54 USC § 100101(a)). Courts have consistently interpreted the Organic Act as giving conservation priority over use such that “when there is a conflict between conserving resources and values and providing for enjoyment of them, conservation is to be predominant” (NPS Management Policies 2006§ 1.4.3).
  • Section 108 of the Water Resources Act of 1974 (Public Law 93-251), the park’s enabling legislation, established BISO “for the purposes of conserving and interpreting an area containing unique cultural, historic, geologic, fish and wildlife, archeologic, scenic, and recreational values, preserving as a natural, free-flowing stream the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River, major portions of its Clear Fork and New River stems, and portions of their various tributaries for the benefit and enjoyment of present and future generations, the preservation of the natural integrity of the scenic gorges and valleys, and the development of the area’s potential for healthful outdoor recreation.” In essence, BISO was created“to protect specific rare or unique recreational or esthetic resources,” which supports the conclusion that BISO should be identified as “fragile lands” in the draft PED/EIS.

In conclusion, consistent with the higher degree of protection afforded to the unique and high quality resources of BISO, we believe that OSMRE should reconsider its dismissal of BISO for “fragile lands” status and should conduct an appropriate analysis resulting in an understandable and defensible determination.

The Extent of Proposed Remining Needs to be Better Defined and Limited

The DEIS contains several alternatives that would allow remining of lands within the petition area, noting that remining pre-SMCRA operations and site restoration have the potential to “reduce or eliminate water impacts including sediment and pollutant loads from the previously mined areas” and restore surface drainage patterns. The primary shortcoming of any/all of the remining alternatives is that the extent of remining that could be allowed, and hence the resulting adverse impacts, is not well quantified and thus appears to be open-ended. As a result, without further description to place practical limits on the circumstances under which remining decisions would be made, the extent of remining is a major shortcoming of these alternatives.

While we agree that remining in certain circumstances can have long-term benefits if done the right way, we believe it is important to address potential remining on a site specific basis. As the draft PED/EIS notes, remining has the potential to disturb surface runoff, pollute waters, and alter surface water and groundwater connections, resulting in adverse impacts on water resources until restoration. Experience in other NPS areas, including New River Gorge National River in West Virginia, has shown that often these previously mined areas have naturally reclaimed over time; lands have revegetated and slopes and drainages have stabilized naturally, eliminating most off-site impacts. Remining these types of sites would likely create new environmental impacts and exacerbate adverse environmental effects, particularly as new access and haul roads would need to be built or former roads would need to be reopened. Access and haul road construction removes vegetation, disturbs soils, and increases the potential for erosion and runoff to adjacent water bodies. Runoff from access roads can be a significant source of sediment loading to streams, especially if not reclaimed after the mining operation.

Specifically, we recommend that remining be limited to “only those circumstances in which there is state and federal agency consensus that the long-term benefits of a remining proposal would significantly exceed the potential short- and long-term adverse impacts.” OSMRE should initiate an inter-agency, consensus-based process by which such future site-specific decisions about remining proposals would be made.

We Support Alternative 4 if Modified to Limit Remining

Contingent on the condition that a consensus-based decision making process, similar to what is suggested above, is incorporated into future decisions about remining, the Coalition strongly supports Alternative 4, as it would most effectively ensure the preservation and best uses of the evaluation area. With such limitation of remining, Alternative 4 would also clearly become the (only) environmentally preferred alternative as it would provide the most effective protection of the affected resources. Given the clear ecological, recreational, and economic benefits of a strong conservation-based decision, we also believe that a modified Alternative 4 would best meet the Purpose and Need for the project and therefore should appropriately become OSMRE’s preferred alternative (and eventual selected action).

In closing, we appreciate this opportunity to comment.


MF Signature



Maureen Finnerty Chair
Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks

March 19, 2016 @ 6:27 pm
This page last modified: March 19, 2016 @ 6:27 pm