Ann League lives a mile and a half from a mountaintop mining operation in Campbell County, Tenn., and when the mining company blows the top off Zeb Mountain, the air concussion slams her doors shut.
A member of Save Our Cumberland Mountains, League testified before the House Committee on Environment and Natural Resources this week, advocating for a bill that would prohibit utility companies from using newly mined coal extracted by that method in North Carolina power plants. Under House Bill 340/ SB 341, the utilities could honor existing contracts, but after those agreements expire, no new mountaintop coal could be used.
Nearly a third of coal used in North Carolina comes from mountaintop mining operations. The environmental impact is huge: The mountains are clearcut. Then, the mining company uses explosives to blow off the first 600 to 700 feet off the mountain. The spoil, or coal dust waste, then clogs the streams and rivers.
League debunked the theory that these mines create jobs. "There has been double-digit in my area for years and the mine hasn't helped it in any way," she told the committee, adding the mine employees 24 people, five of them local. "All it's done is pollute the water. Mountaintop mining is no good at all. It has no honor. It is devastation."
However, utility companies Duke Energy and Progress Energy opposed the bill, relying on their usual arguments that it would be too expensive. Sasha Weintraub, Progress Energy's vice president of power optimization, contended that it would increase residential monthly rates by 3 percent to 5 percent—or about $6.25 a month. Industrial customers could see increases of 5 percent to 8 percent.
"Energy costs will drive prospective customers to other states, he warned.
If utilities burn coal from many places outside Appalachia, such as the Powder River Basin in Wyoming, their power plants would need to be partially retrofitted to burn the fuel, utility representative said.
However, Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices, based in Boone, N.C., noted that there is plenty of Appalachian coal available in underground mines, which would not require the plants to be retrofitted. In addition, he said, "The level of impacts to this region is enormous."
Rep. Phil Haire, a Democrat from Sylva, in western N.C., is one of the bill's four primary sponsors. "Money is a scare tactic. Seventy percent of the coal comes from underground," said Haire, who grew up in mining areas of West Virginia. "The amount of destruction that has rained on this part of America—I have a hard time reconciling that in my mind."
However, Rep. Pat McElreft, a Republican representing Carteret and Jones counties, was unswayed. "I have compassion for the lady who was here and resides in the state of Tennesse," McElreft said. "I ask her, 'Where is Al Gore?' He is the father of the environment in Tennessee. I'm here representing Carteret and Jones counties, not other states."
Gore was a congressman from Tennessee for more than 15 years, but has not represented the state since 1993.
There is a potential hitch in the bill in that, if passed, the mining companies could challenge its legality under the fedreral interstate commerce clause. It is uncertain how a court would rule on such a case.
The committee did not vote on the bill and is expected to continue its discussion later this month.
Mountaintop removal is only one of several notable environmental bills worth tracking:
SB 239/ HB 372
Would extend the time for homeowners and businesses to qualify for state tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency improvements. (State credits are often matched with similar federal incentives.) For example, a homeowner could qualify for a $1,400 state tax credit for solar hot water heaters, including swimming pool heaters.
Primary Senate sponsor: Josh Stein, D-Wake.
SB 993/ HB 823
Would ban the sale, manufacture or distribution of several products containing the flame retardant PBDE: Mattresses and pads, upholstered furniture intended for indoor use and electronic devices.
The flame retardant is chemically similar to PCBs, which are toxic and have been banned in the U.S. since 1977. PBDE exposure has been linked to damage of the immune, reproductive and thyroid systems in humans. And in cats, studies suggest the chemical could be linked to an increase in thyroid disease. Several states and the European Union have banned the flame retardant in favor of safer alternatives.
Firefighters, nurses and the N.C. Department of Insurance, as well as environmental groups, are for it. Lobbying group Citizens for Fire Safety, which includes companies that make PDBE, oppose it.
Would extend the legislative Commission on Global Climate Change, which was due to sunset this fall, to Oct. 1, 2010. The Commission would continue to address issues of "adaptation": How to prepare the N.C. coast for a possible rise in sea levels.
Status: House Rules Committee
Would require telecommunications and power companies to notify affected property owners 72 hours in advance of any pesticide spraying in the public utility right-of-ways. These companies spray to control weeds, but there are often unintended side effects. Schweintz's Sunflower, an endangered species in North Carolina, is often found in these right-of-ways. Moreover, pesticides don't obey property laws, and can drift to other areas. The utilities oppose the bill.
Status: House Public Utilities Committee
Is a many-facted bill that would more closely regulate coal ash disposal. In January, a massive coal ash spill from a containment pond in Tennesse released at least 2.6 million cubic yards of the toxic material into land, streams and neighborhoods.
In North Carolina, there are 14 coal ash ponds covering 168 acres.
This bill would establish laws on how the ponds are constructed, limit where they can be built—including a ban on new ponds and a phase-out of existing ones. The measure would also direct the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources to monitor and enforce regulations governing the safety of coal ash ponds, as well as to charge and collect disposal fees.