Environmentalists performed their annual burlesque at the start of the year's legislative session, appearing before the media this week to feign optimism for an agenda that never seems to change and never goes anywhere. At the top of their to-do list yet again: a law banning coal companies from blowing the tops off our mountains, and restoration of the state fund to pay for the preservation of scenic land. Both are worthy goals, but what are their odds of becoming reality? Zip. Nada. That's because our legislature is so business friendly that not only is progress unlikely on the environmental front but even the most commonsense regulations are vulnerable to attack. In Tennessee, conservationists are like hockey goalies, always playing defense.
Some of the legislature's worst enemies of the environment sit on the inaptly named House Conservation and Environment Committee. They include the chairman, Joe McCord, and another East Tennessee farmer, Frank Niceley.
Last year, Niceley blamed TVA's massive toxic ash spill on a fictional earthquake. He dismissed the federal utility's culpability and laughed off arsenic levels in the disaster zone at 150 times what's safe for human consumption. Arsenic is "not that bad," he said.
The whole legislature never even has gotten the chance to vote on whether to ban the environmentally devastating method of mining known as mountaintop removal. A handful of rural lawmakers, who couldn't possibly care less about protecting the environment, have killed the bill in McCord's committee for the past two sessions. They argue the coal company's property rights trump the public interest in preventing ecological catastrophes.
Mountaintop removal has ravaged much of Appalachia. Coal companies chop down the trees, scrape up the topsoil, then stuff fertilizer and fuel oil — the ingredients of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing — into drill holes and blast up to 1,000 feet off the tops of mountains. By some estimates, rock and dirt have buried 1,200 miles of streams, and hundreds of square miles of forests have been spoiled. "Our beautiful landscapes are as much a part of our Tennessee DNA as singing 'Rocky Top,' " says Mary Helen Clarke, a member of the Tennessee Conservation Voters board. "But sadly, some would steal our heritage and this natural beauty and leave us rocky topless."
McCord is from Maryville in the foothills of the Smokies. A farmer and land developer, he manages the Lost Sea tourist attraction. His livelihood and that of his constituents depends on visitors enticed there by mountain scenery. Yet every year he's instrumental in killing legislation to stop coal companies from dynamiting the mountains that underpin our gazillion-dollar tourism industry.
Last session, McCord's name appeared more than any other legislator's as a sponsor on the Tennessee Clean Water Network's list of terrible bills. Here's one great idea from McCord: He'd bar state regulators from checking out pollution complaints that are made anonymously. After all, polluters can't intimidate annoying neighbors unless they know their names.
But perhaps the worst was the law McCord succeeded in passing that redefines water to exclude a lot of streams and creeks so that industries can pollute them at will. The TCWR called it "perhaps the most dangerous of all water quality bills." According to the TCWR, that law eventually could destroy 30,000 miles of streams — almost half the streams in Tennessee.
Under this law, here's how we'll deal with pesky burbling brooks interfering with development plans: The developer only has to hire a "consultant" to write a report concluding that the stream isn't a stream at all. No, it's merely a "wet-weather conveyance" and therefore unworthy of any protections under environmental law.
McCord fell one vote short of passing another bill for the coal industry last session. After a couple of hours of debate, only 49 lawmakers were willing to vote to weaken standards for the amount of selenium that coal mines may release into Tennessee streams. Critics warned it could cause massive fish and wildlife kills and jeopardize human health, too.
McCord assured his colleagues that selenium is perfectly safe. In fact, it's so good for you they put it in vitamin pills. You need "your daily dose of selenium," McCord said.
"I do not think this is an effort to destroy our environment," he said, somehow managing to keep a straight face.
Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, called his claims an embarrassment: "We have had more bad science quoted today. If there were a group of scientists watching us, they can't even hear us anymore because they are laughing so hard."
"This may be the worst bill I've seen up here in my 10 years," House Democratic caucus chairman Mike Turner said. "We'll have the most polluted streams in the country."
"Who brought you this bill?" Turner asked McCord.
"I got this bill from people in the coal industry," McCord replied without a trace of shame.