Coal mining has nearly vanished in Tennessee,
but its troubled legacies live on.
by Jesse Fox Mayshark
The black rock crumbles in your hands.
It's hard and shiny, smooth to touch. But if you take a piece and press with thumbs and forefingers, it breaks with barely a sound, a whisper of soot. There are mounds of it here, clumped into dark masses along an elevated iron grate. Not long ago, this rusting coal tipple at the side of a road leading out of the small Anderson County community of Briceville churned through hundreds of these piles a day, shaking them and sorting them and dropping them into waiting freight cars on the railroad tracks below. But one day, the trains stopped. Someone turned off the switch and walked away, leaving the tipple, the tracks, and the wheelbarrow-size loads of coal stranded halfway up the conveyor belt.
For a century and more, this was East Tennessee's gold, the riches of the Cumberland Plateau. By the time the machine shut down, it wasn't worth anyone's while to shovel up what was left.
The same is mostly true of the industry itself. Coal mining didn't burn out in Tennessee so much as fade away, leaving behind open pits, out-of-work miners, and mixed feelings. Freddie Wright, director of Region Two for the United Mine Workers of America, grew up in Claiborne County and first went to work at the Consolidation Coal Company there. But, he says from his office in Charlottesville, W.Va., "The industry's so insignificant down there anymore, I don't even try to keep up with it."
What happened to Tennessee coal is a story of capitalism, environmentalism, and politics. What will happen to the scars it left on the landscapeand the sulfurous smog it still pumps into the atmosphereis an open question.
When Kerry Templin graduated from Lake City High School in 1980, he knew where he wanted to go to work: underground.
"I tried it for four months," he says, sitting in the lobby of the Lake City community center, which serves as a small museum of the local coal mining industry. "It was my first job when I got out of high school."
It was still easy to get the jobs, then. You went down to the local mines, signed on, and agreed to spend your dayslunch, bathroom breaks, everythinghunched over or sprawled on your side in tunnels a mile or more from the sunlight. When you came out, you'd be covered helmet to boot-heel with black dust. "All you could see were my lips and my eyes," says Templin, a spry, close-cropped fireman at the Y-12 plant in Oak Ridge. "You'd have to shower off twice."
It was hard, aching, sweaty work, "dangerous as hell." The teenaged Templin was part of a team of six men working in a deep mine near Briceville. They worked a Wilcox continuous miner, a long log-shaped machine with arcing metal teeth that chewed into the coal seams, breaking up the rock. Templin was a jack man, setting props to move the machine forward and scooping residue onto a conveyor belt that carried it backwards toward the mine entrance. On a good day, when nothing broke down, the cutting crew could excavate 600 tons of bituminous coal.
Four months was enough to make the Marines look like a more attractive option. "I wanted to say I did it, and I did," Templin says, with a small smile. "I worked in it long enough to say it didn't whip me."
And he was paid for it too$8.50 an hour.
"In 1980, that was damn good money for a kid straight out of high school." He pauses. "Of course, I know a lot of people who aren't making that today."
Bobby Leach knows them too. For most of the 1970s and '80s, he and a group of partners operated a dozen or more coal operations, mostly in the Oliver Springs area but some stretching as far away as Oneida. Leach, like Templin the grandson of Anderson County miners, got into coal mining young. In high school, he and his best friend Early Phillips picked up spending cash by digging in a small "mule mine" operated by Phillips' older brother.
"They paid us 75 cents a ton for clean coal," says Leach, a stout-chested man with gray hair and a silvery mustache. "You'd load it with a pick and shovel, and he provided the dynamite to shoot with."
Leach and Phillips used to joke then that someday they'd own the mine. Twenty years later, they did. After serving in Vietnam and then working in an iron plant in Ohio, Leach came home. With help from his uncle, Berldon Coker, and Coker's partner, local coal millionaire Jack Walls, Leach entered the coal business right when the OPEC energy crisis created a spike in coal demand. In the 1970s, anyone with a mine could almost print their own money. ("I know a half-dozen people who were millionaires in just a year or two," Templin says.)
The biggest buyer, in Tennessee and in the nation, was the Tennessee Valley Authority, which was still building new coal-fired steam plants. Mining by that time mostly meant strip miningusing powerful digging machines to plow through layers and layers of sediment to reach thin bands of coal. The local topography and geology sometimes required eating through 75 feet of stone and shale (the "overburden") to reach a coal seam no more than 30 inches thick.
At its peak, Tennessee produced between 11 and 12 million tons of coal a year. But even then, coal operators who were paying attention knew a downturn was coming. In 1977 or '78, Leach says he visited a strip mine in Mile City, Montana. In the West, mine fields tend to be broad and shallow.
"The seam of coal was 28 feet thick, the overburden was 20 feet," he says. "I knew when I saw it, if that coal ever comes this way, we'd be in trouble."
Meanwhile, the loosely regulated industry was coming under increasing pressure from the nascent environmental movement. In 1972the same year Tennessee hit its highest coal production levela disparate group of local landowners, environmentalists, and scientists organized Save Our Cumberland Mountains (SOCM), now the best-known activist group in East Tennessee. SOCM launched a sustained lobbying and media campaign for stricter mining and clean-up rules.
In 1975, Tennessee passed what was then one of the toughest surface mining laws in the country, requiring better monitoring of strip operations and reclamation of exhausted mine sites. Although the coal industrywhich had its own acronymic lobbying group, Facts About Coal in Tennessee (FACT)was at odds with SOCM on many issues, Bobby Leach contends indigenous mining companies actually supported the legislation.
"The coal industry was strong enough in the '70s that if they didn't want a law, it wouldn't get passed," he says. "[We knew] either you police yourself or somebody else is going to police you. I grew up in the mountains, I loved the mountains, and the idea of just pushing material down a hollow, that was ridiculous. You were ruining everything."
He notes the 1975 law included a 20-cent-per-ton tax on mining companies, which went directly to the county where the coal was excavated to pay for roadwork, stream protection, and local schools.
Regardless, the Tennessee law was superseded two years later by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the first comprehensive federal strip-mining law. It's still in place, with minor revisions. It created the Office of Surface Mining in the U.S. Department of the Interior to oversee state regulatory programs. Among other things, mining companies must post a bond before getting a mine permit (the bond amount varies by state). They get the bond money back only after environmental reclamation is complete on the mine site.
The federal law also mandated a feecurrently 35 cents per ton for strip coal and 15 cents for underground coalpaid by mining companies into an Abandoned Mine Land fund. The AML money is supposed to be used to reclaim pits abandoned before 1977.
The Clean Air Act also complicated things, giving utilities incentive to buy coal with lower sulfur contenta problem for Tennessee, which generally produces high-sulfur coal.
But even mine owners like Leach admit the tougher laws played only a small part in driving Tennessee out of the coal business. Much more significant was the decline in coal prices that began in the late '70s and has continued ever since. Coal boomed during the OPEC fuel crisis, but as petroleum prices came down, so did the rest of the energy market. Slowly, mining in Tennessee, with its steep inclines and deep seams, became more trouble than it was worth.
Leach remembers a turning point. In 1983, he was negotiating a contract with an industrial group from Lakeland, Fla. The deal was for 720,000 tons of coal a year, at $34 a ton. Considering that Leach's various companies only produced about 750,000 tons, it would have meant a market for almost his total output. But talks bogged down as Leach tried to push the price to $34.50. Soon, he got a call from Floridathey had another supplier. Leach tried to backpedal to the original agreement. The buyer said he couldn't.
"I said, 'Well, if I match their price, will you give me the contract?'" Leach recalls. "He said, 'Sure.' Then he told me what their price was$17 a ton. And of course it was from Colombia. I mean, you know, I was dead."
Likewise, the huge, cheap mines in the West began to ship more and more coal across the Mississippi. In March 2000, TVA bought 3.8 million tons of coal; just 117,620 tons (3 percent) came from Tennessee. In 1988, the state had 105 mines producing 6.5 million tons of coal a year. By 1997, there just 27 mines still active, turning out 3.3 million tonsbarely a quarter of Tennessee's output 20 years ago. The state doesn't even regulate its own industry anymore. During a series of skirmishes with the federal Office of Surface Mining in the mid-'80s, Gov. Lamar Alexander decided angrily to just drop the state program. What little mining is left in Tennessee is directly under the supervision of OSM.
It's not that the coal seams are tapped out. By government estimates, there are some 80 million tons still buried in the Cumberland mountains and plateau. But, Leach says with resignation, "Tennessee coal will not support [the cost of] mining."
Leach shut down his last mine in 1988. He misses the work"You knew what you were going to do every day," he saysbut he's done all right. In 1980, he started B&D Equipment, which sells and contracts out heavy machinery. Of course, Leach had decades of business experience and a college degree. Many of the men who worked for him weren't as well positioned.
"In 1978, I looked at the mean education of the folks I had working for me, and it was less than a junior in high school," he says, seated in the B&D office in Claxtonjust down the road from TVA's Bull Run steam plant, which used to buy Leach's coal. "Yet [mining] was something they could function at as well as anybody with a Ph.D. The average income for my folks at the time was $28,000. In 1978, that was good money.
"Many of them, the money went right through their fingers," he admits. "Some of them would trade pick-ups twice a year. But some of them had nice houses and did well. When coal mining faded out, here you had folks who were used to making $10 to $15 an hour with good benefits, now taking jobs for $5 an hour with no medical, no benefits. A lot of them had a hard time adjusting. Some of them probably never did adjust."
A tour of some of Anderson County's former coal communities drives the point home. At one time, Beech Grove outside of Lake City was known as "Better Chance," because if a miner couldn't get a job somewhere else, he had a better chance here. The mines in Beech Grove fed the Champion paper plant in Canton, N.C., which meant they had a stable demand. But eventually, the economics of the industry caught up with them, and they shut down. Now, the handful of company houses that still line the narrow asphalt lanes (with names like "Commissary Road") are gray and splintering.
Charles "Boomer" Winfrey, a former SOCM geologist and now a newspaper editor in nearby LaFollette, points out the window of his van and says, "This little place has been selected by Hollywood several times. They love all these little houses along here." And it's no wonder; some of the compact clapboard structures look almost like museum setpieces of Appalachian poverty. The difference is, they're still occupied.
The only sign of any local economy in Beech Grove is at the end of the main road, right before a gate blocks the way to the old mine sites. In a large side yard are dozens of small blue plastic hutspens for fighting cocks. An even larger industry is less apparent but no doubt present. Last year, Winfrey says, neighboring Campbell County seized 100,000 marijuana plants.
As far as the United Mine Workers of America is concerned, the only miners left anywhere in Tennessee are retired. The union's influence started waning here as early as the 1950s, during the shift from big underground pits to small strip-mine operations. Now, UMWA's Freddie Wright says, there are only two "locals," both of them concerned strictly with dispensing pension checks.
Wright has good reason to sympathize with the plight of Tennessee miners. One of the men left jobless when the last large mine closed in Claiborne County 10 years ago was his brother. "He went from making $17 an hour to $7 working for the local utility," Wright says.
It wasn't just the miners left stranded by the coal industryit was the land itself. Any mines that closed before the 1977 law were not subject to environmental regulations. And there are a lot of them. Tim Eagle, who heads the land reclamation section of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, says the state has 46,000 total acres of abandoned mine land. Of that, 11,000 acres were identified in the 1980s as potentially hazardous to public healthusually because of "acid mine drainage" (AMD), the sulfur from open strip pits that can dissolve metals like lead or mercury and wash them into the surrounding water table.
But so far, 23 years after the federal legislation, the state has successfully reclaimed just under 2,000 acres. Just to finish the 11,000 "priority" acres, Eagle estimates his office needs about $16.5 million. Currently, he gets $1.5-$2 million a year in state and federal money, none of it secure.
"We've gone through a series of budget cuts over the years," he says. "It's whittled down quite a bit."
Abandoned strip mines can be deceptive. If you don't look too closely, those that have filled up with rainwater can seem like pastoral ravines. But Landon Medley, a former Van Buren County Commissioner who has dealt with strip mine issues as a SOCM member (and president) for 16 years, says they're potential poison.
"It's like a powder keg waiting to go off, hitting the streams and rivers of Tennessee," he says. "AMD has a habit of just floating around underground for years."
When it does enter a water table, it can have drastic effects. Medley recounts visiting one woman on Cagle Mountain, where the water had been polluted by manganese and other metals from mine pits.
"The lady was sitting there, and she was almost crying about how her green beans turn blue when she cooks them," he says. "She can't wash her clothes, she can't do anything... But what can you do if it's the only water supply you have?"
Theoretically, the federal Abandoned Mine Land fund is supposed to help with the clean-up. But while mine companies continue to pay into it, Congress is chary about handing it out. The fund has grown to $1.3 billion, whichlike the Social Security trust fundis counted against federal expenditures to produce the mythical "balanced budget."
Barbara Ramey, senior grant specialist for OSM in Washington, D.C., says her office divvies up about $250 million a year among the 25 coal-producing states. Tennessee doesn't qualify for much, partly because it doesn't have its own regulatory body, a requirement for standard abandoned mine funding. It gets between $1 million and $2 million a year, but strictly on an "emergency" basis.
"We're only going to work on those things that are health and safety related," Tim Eagle says. "Dangerous highwalls, landslides, things that directly affect your health and welfare."
But Eagle says the state's odd position doesn't necessarily hurt it. Since the regular apportionment is based partly on current coal production, Tennessee might not qualify for any more than it currently does even if it did its own regulation.
A bigger concern is that the requirement for coal companies to pay into the abandoned mine fund expires in 2004. OSM officials estimate that would leave them with only half the money needed to clean up remaining sites. They're pushing to extend the fee through at least 2014. Meanwhile, UMWA has joined the hunt for the funds. Changes in the law (at the union's urging) allowed Congress to redirect interest from the fund to miners' pensions.
"I think [abandoned mine money] is going to be a big issue," Winfrey says. "The likelihood of it coming here if things continue as they are is zero."
Ironically, even as its coal production has withered, Tennessee remains home to the largest coal consumer in the nation. TVA's reliance on coal to provide low-cost electricity remains an issue of controversy between the utility company and environmentalists.
At a press conference on Market Square last week, in front of a black inflatable model of a coal-fired plant, representatives of a group called Clear the Air said coal emissions are a major reason Knoxville ranked 12th in an American Lung Association study of the smoggiest cities in America.
"TVA and coal are like brother and sister," Ulla-Britt Reeves of the Tennessee Clean Air Task Force said at the demonstration. "They're not going to be separated in the near future."
TVA spokesman Gil Francis confirms that. Despite the launch of its new "Green Power" program (in which customers can voluntarily pay more for electricity from cleaner sources like natural gas), he says the company still gets about 60 percent of its power from coal plants. Most of the rest is nuclear.
"The mix of generation is going to continue to be probably that percentage for I can't tell you how long," he says. "We've done a number of things to reduce emissions. [But] the bottom line is, you're still going to need those plants to keep the lights on."
TVA is currently facing a lawsuit from the Environmental Protection Agency, which contends the company has retrofitted old power plants to extend their lives without bringing them up to current environmental standards.
Stephen Smith, a longtime local environmentalist and TVA critic, says few people understand the scope of coal's damage to East Tennessee, from the problems associated with mining to the acid rain that returns sulfur and nitrate emissions from the air back into the soil and water tables. But while he thinks TVA and the mining industry should be held accountable"They go in, they rape the land, they get their money, and then they leave not only the land scarred but people's lives scarred"he says everyone who benefits from the result has some responsibility.
"Every time you flip on your switch, a lot of people don't think about this, but if you trace that wire back, it goes to a coal-fired power plant."
Kerry Templin remembers when he was a kidnot that long ago, he's only 38and Lake City was a busy place. On Saturdays, the small town was full of people browsing its lively stores. The tracks through the middle of town were still alive with freight trains pulling car after car of Anderson County coal.
"Basically, there wouldn't be anybody here if it weren't for the coal business," he says, leaning back in a chair inside the small mining museum. "That's the only reason people came into this area. Anybody who's lived here all their life can trace their family back into the coal mines."
Templin knows the various raps against coal, both the product and the industry, and he thinks some of them are legitimate. But he's not sure its decline has made anything better in East Tennessee. Environmental problems persist on other fronts, without the benefits of jobs and growth coal promised. "In my opinion, logging is a hell of a lot worse than surface mining, because they don't have to do a thing," he says. "Mines are tightly regulated... Surface mining is not something you can go in in a month or two and do something. You can go in and log 500 acres in a matter of weeks."
As he talks, a CSX coal train trundles by on tracks a few hundred yards off. Brown boxcars trail after the engine. But they're just passing through.
"Going to Eastern Kentucky," Templin says, looking out the window. "Those cars are empty now."
June 1, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 22
© 2000 Metro Pulse