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United Mountain Defense: Organizing for Justice in Tennessee’s Coalfields

 

In August 2005, United Mountain Defense (UMD) with concerned citizens and other organizations met with Paul Sloan, the new Deputy Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC).  This meeting was the culmination of over two and a half years of intensive organizing by United Mountain Defense on the issue of illegal water quality permits issued to mining companies for the "alteration" of mountain headwater streams.  

 On January 18th 2005, the August meeting with Deputy Commissioner Sloan resulted in fundamental changes to TDEC's policy and in a series of important advances toward the protection of Tennessee 's mountains and headwaters.  These changes included:

  •    Tennessee will no longer issue ARAP (Aquatic Resource Alteration Permit) permits for the alteration of undisturbed perennial and intermittent streams
  •    Tennessee will enforce a 100 foot buffer zone around these streams
  •    Tennessee will no longer issue permits for mines where the coal seams are highly acidic (Ph 5 or lower)
  •    Tennessee will tighten permitting restrictions on haul roads.

Paul Sloane, the Deputy Director of TDEC, told us at this meeting that the #1 environmental issue that Governor Bredesen gets letters and emails about is Mountain Top Removal, aka Cross Ridge Strip Mining.  When UMD put out calls across the country for people to contact our Governor and to politely voice opposition to this destructive mining practice in Tennessee they did!

The #1 question UMD is being asked right now is, “how was it done?” What led TDEC to leave a 20 year rut and begin to change? You are the answer. It was simply pure, grassroots work including: listening projects (going door to door in mining communities), talking to people, water testing, call in campaigns, legal research and mine monitoring. It’s been the UMD volunteers who have made it happen, and here is how we did it.

 In late 2003, United Mountain Defense asked a simple question: “How do we win?”  After intensive policy and political analysis, UMD decided to focus on TDEC and specifically on the impacts of mining on mountain headwater (perennial, intermittent and ephemeral) streams.  UMD's policy staff developed a comprehensive legal and political strategy to halt surface mining in Tennessee through the enforcement of Tennessee’s Water Quality Control Act and the Clean Water Act.

UMD has requested and organized a public hearing on every ARAP permit proposed by TDEC for a surface coal mine. From the fall of 2004 until now, the attendance at these four hearings has ranged from a low of around thirty citizens (combined hearing on National Coal Mine 4 and Eagan Mountain Mine 2) to a high of around seventy citizens (Tackett Creek Mine 1).

Beginning in the summer of 2005, UMD began implementing the second phase of the TDEC campaign and has requested and organized a public hearing on every National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit proposed by TDEC.  These hearings have been attended by around 40 citizens each. Our campaign efforts have focused on 3 steps:

1.       Convince the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) that it could not issue mining permits, if the state refused to issue an ARAP or an NPDES permit for a mine. UMD submitted comprehensive comments on this issue in conjunction with Revision 3 of the Zeb Mountain permit.

2.       Proving to both OSM and TDEC that it is illegal under the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act (and thus under SMCRA) for a mining company to mine through or otherwise alter mountain headwaters without a permit.  TDEC's practice at the time was to allow companies to mine through intermittent and ephemeral streams without a permit, because these waters were not "blue line" streams.  In comprehensive written comments, a letter to the Tennessee Water Quality Control Board, and in a series of meetings with OSM and TDEC officials, UMD explained that it is irrelevant whether or not a stream is a "blue line” stream.  Ephemeral and intermittent streams are waters of the state and their alteration requires an ARAP permit.  TDEC and OSM ultimately agreed with UMD and TDEC began requiring mining companies to apply for and obtain individual ARAP permits for the alteration of headwaters.

3.       Proving to TDEC that issuance of ARAP permits for the alteration of headwaters violated the TWQCA and that therefore these permits had to be denied.  Here are some examples of how we have been, and are continuing to, accomplish these three steps.

UMD's policy staff has had numerous meetings with OSM officials, explaining the requirements of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act (SMCRA) in regards to the Clean Water Act and the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act.  OSM ultimately agreed with United Mountain Defense that it could not override the Clean Water Act or the Tennessee Water Quality Control Act. Also, that if the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation denied either the ARAP or the NPDES permit for a mine, OSM would deny or withdraw the mining permit.

UMD is aggressively challenging each individual ARAP permit.  UMD implements this strategy through a combination of grassroots organizing, policy and legal expertise.

UMD requests public hearings on each permit and aggressively organizes around each one.  UMD conducts this organizing through outreach to you and everyone else we could ask for: fishermen, hydrologists, geologists, writers, ATV enthusiasts, activists in local communities and everyone who loves mountains. UMD’s efforts also encompasses urban organizing including contacts with local businesses and the design/posting of flyers in urban centers in Tennessee.

Electronic Campaign

 UMD recognizes the importance of electronic media. UMD’s staff has engaged in an aggressive worldwide and statewide electronic campaign to inform the public of the ongoing destruction of Tennessee’s ridgelines and watersheds. UMD also uses electronic media to inform the public of permit hearings and other opportunities for participation, to educate the public generally about the issue, to raise funds, and to obtain needed supplies including testing equipment, high resolution digital cameras and other equipment. Commonly, UMD will send a post to at least 20,000 people electronically.

UMD regularly writes articles and makes presentations to alternative and mainstream media about Mountain Top Removal. Our outreach has been primarily focused not only on Tennessee residents, but throughout the country.

UMD works to cultivate relationships with scientists and other experts.  As a result, UMD has been able to obtain direct testimony from leading ecologists, hydrologist, geologist and other scientists in addition to submitting and incorporating this testimony into formal comments. 

Water Testing

 In order to gather relevant scientific data about the ongoing health of the streams and watersheds beneath these cross-ridge strip mines, UMD began both on the ground with systematic water testing of the New River Watershed. Phosphate, pH readings, nitrogen and several other tests where administered to over 30 streams over a period of a year. Those results where sent to the Governor, TDEC, OSM, list serves with thousands of people and anyone else we could think of. This scientific data translates into credibility. When UMD talks about the on-the-ground conditions in effected watersheds TDEC knows UMD has been there.  We have been sending high resolution photo’s - with GPS coordinates - of each and every stream with: dates, water samples, and field turbidity test.

Aerial Monitoring

 UMD is also engaged in aerial monitoring the destruction of our ridges at the various mine sites. The strip-mining on the Tennessee plateau is now clearly visible to tourists traveling across Tennessee . By using high resolution photographs UMD is able to review mine sites with the plus (+) function of most photo media software. UMD’s photography goes back years and tracks the cancer like spreading of strip mine sites across the Cumberland Plateau . We have sent these photos out to thousands of people including the Governor of Tennessee, media, and agency officials. UMD regularly offers plane flights to interested officials, media and members of the public who wish to see first hand the destruction.

The Mountain Defender

 UMD published over 10,000 issues of our last issue of the Tennessee Mountain Defender. Using high-resolution color photos and the words of those in the field, The Defender has been handed out to hunters, teachers, students, miners, public officials, politicians, media and people who walk by us on the street—close to 10,000 issues have been distributed since the summer. UMD has secured full funding for the next 4 issues of the Defender and our next issue is currently being prepared for print.

People’s Hearings

 TDEC's hearings are purposely designed to be both frustrating and confusing to citizens who are required to testify individually behind closed doors. We call it the Catholic confessional model of testimony, “Forgive me Father, destruction of highland watersheds is a bad idea.”  TDEC’s new hearing format, which they have turned to in the last year, is three times slower than the previous open hearing format. The new format destroys any cross-pollination of ideas which is central to the idea of a “public” hearing, and it is incredibly repetitive. People have no idea what  testimony was given before them and repeat the same testimony.

 Additionally TDEC does its best to assure hearings are as far away from any urban center as possible. On average, to attend some TDEC mine hearings from Knoxville , you have to drive several hours. They will hold them on a week night—usually right after people get off work.  In order to combat this stripping the public part from the public hearing, UMD has created new rules for the hearing process.

 UMD implemented a policy of holding "people’s hearings" an hour before each public hearing.  The people's hearings feature both designated speakers and an opportunity for any interested citizen to testify and/or make a speech, as well as sharing information and hearing other citizens' concerns.  UMD records these hearings on video and audio cassettes then submits them as part of the official record on the permit.

The Listening Project

UMD conducts “listening projects” beneath many of the areas affected by the strip mining. Volunteers go door to door listening to what community members have to say. In Elk Valley , we literally got a map and went from one end of that community to the other in teams. Through these projects we have collected invaluable information.

Additionally community members have seen that we are just people struggling for mountains that we share a love for also. Listening projects have now been used throughout the Appalachia mountains, where people fight for their mountains. However, the tactic was first tried here in Tennessee . This has enabled UMD to forge links with the local community and concerned citizens.

United Mountain Defense conducts Listening Projects to better understand the views, impacts on and needs of local residents in Tennessee’s coal impacted communities. Volunteers walk door to door and practice active listening and we utilize the results to shape a more comprehensive campaign which respects the dignity and needs of local residents, find allies, and educate UMD members about grassroots impacts and attitudes. UMD has so far conducted Listening Projects in Elk Valley, the New River area, the Eagan area of Claiborne County and in the Swan Pond community impacted by the TVA coal waste disaster in Roane County.  UMD offers listening project workshops and materials to other NGOs. The information gained from the Listening Projects has helped to shape UMD's campaign work.


Reflective Organizing

    United Mountain Defense brings volunteers and community members together to work on projects that address the root issues created by the life cycle of coal in Tennessee.   UMD organizes in coal impacted communities, engaging in "reflective organizing" (organizing towards goals which reflect the stated needs of community members). To this end, UMD is now working to end the clear cutting associated with current mining practices, we are supportive of ecologically sustainable creative economies and we are supporting the survivors of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s coal waste disaster to push for coal waste to be regulated as a hazardous waste.


Outreach and Education

    UMD engages volunteers and community members in numerous outreach and education opportunities including publishing and distributing the Tennessee Mountain Defender newspaper, organizing and participating in special events, conducting online organizing and letter writing campaigns, as well as coalition building. UMD has expanded its outreach and education by supporting several educational art projects

Tennessee Mountain Defender Newspaper
    The Tennessee Mountain Defender is an educational newspaper that includes articles on the impacts of mining on Tennessee’s mountains and watersheds, current permits, ways citizens can get involved, how to report violations of the law and numerous other articles of interest. Each edition is distributed to local coalfield residents and is passed out in numerous other communities and at local and regional events.

Tennessee Mountain Defender 2006


Voices for Appalachia- Written and Narrated by Hundreds
An Appalachian Portrait-Story Project

Reach the artist Francesco di Santis through email at wanderer@riseup.net  

Voices for Appalachia Website

Voices for Appalachia Image Gallery

Post Katrina Portrait Story Project

    Voices for Appalachia is a media and social phenomenon made up of 500 Portrait-Stories. Each piece of art features a hand drawn portrait of an individual living within Appalachia and their personal story written directly on the portrait. The art series includes a large range of descriptive stories and anecdotes of firsthand accounts of each person’s experience in Appalachia. The future of the project depends on continued collaboration to make it accessible for viewers within Appalachia as a touring art show and outreach and education tool.  Please consider arranging a Voices for Appalachia art show for your community.

More about Voices for Appalachia

How to get Voices for Appalachia in your Town

Guidelines for setting up Voices for Appalachia

History of Voices for Appalachia

Current Location



Online Organizing and Letter Writing

    United Mountain Defense conducts extensive online organizing and outreach including letter writing and email campaigns. We have a website, an active listserv, various social media profiles (including a Facebook and Twitter) and we regularly publish in online publications such as the Tennessee Independent Media Center. Our letter writing and email campaigns also enable citizens to submit comments on permits and rule changes as well as hearing requests.


Special Events

    Throughout the year, United Mountain hosts and produces outreach material for numerous special events. These events have included rallies, film festivals, benefit concerts and speaking engagements to both educate the public and to mobilize action in the campaign to protect the mountains and waters of Tennessee.


Coalition Building

    United Mountain Defense is dedicated to fostering links with other NGOs and engaging citizens, and has helped build region wide coalitions across Appalachia. We realize that we are strongest when we are united in our campaign to protect our mountains, waters and people.