SUMMARY OF TESTIMONY BEFORE THE DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE PARTY PLATFORM DEVELOPMENT HEARING - JULY 6, 2000

Barry Thacker, PE
 speaks before
 committee

The Coal Creek Watershed Foundation, Inc. (CCWF) is a non-profit organization with a mission to improve the quality of life in the Coal Creek watershed of Anderson County, Tennessee. CCWF began with a goal of improving water quality by reclaiming abandoned coal mine lands (AML). We soon learned that if you restrict your effort to cleaning up the water and not changing the living conditions and the attitudes of those who live in the watershed, then nothing will be accomplished. Water quality problems in the Appalachian coal fields are emblematic, a problem of history, a long story of cultural attitudes toward the environment, toward laborers, and a certain disregard for future consequences. If we are truly to solve environmental problems in the Appalachian coal fields, then we have to open the whole can of worms that is life in coal mining country.

CCWF works in partnership with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), Trout Unlimited (TU), Boy Scouts of America (BSA), coal companies, residents, Office of Surface Mining, Tennessee Valley Authority, Anderson County, various state agencies, and others. CCWF provides coordination, communication services, and obtains funding for the service groups active in the watershed. The service groups implement the initiatives to accomplish our mission.

Coal Creek offers opportunities for economic and social development based on its history, people, and environment as follows:

HISTORY. Coal has been mined in the Coal Creek watershed for 150 years. Mine disasters in 1902 and 1911 make it the third worst disaster site in the history of mining in the United States and the worst in the South. The Coal Creek War was fought from 1891 to 1892 between State militia and free miners trying to abolish the convict labor system enacted by the State of Tennessee. Labor unrest from 1903 to 1904 resulted in the shoot-out at the Coal Creek Train Depot resulting in 9 wounded and 4 dead. Cross Mountain, in the Coal Creek watershed, served as the site of a radar station to provide early warning of enemy planes threatening to bomb Oak Ridge after WWII. From Cross Mountain, 290-foot tall wind turbine sites can be observed which are part of TVA's Green Power Switch program to pioneer methods for cleaner generation of power.

PEOPLE. In addition to surviving mine disasters, wars, and labor unrest, the people of Coal Creek have survived numerous floods. The regional flood of record in 1965 destroyed the community of Clinchmore in the adjacent watershed. Despite these hardships, Briceville Elementary School won a recent Title I Distinguished School Award, one of only 88 schools in the nation to win such an award.

ENVIRONMENT. Mountains, streams, and scenic overlooks in the Coal Creek watershed rival those of the Great Smoky Mountains. Coal Creek drains into the Clinch River below Norris Dam in the middle of the most popular trout fishery in Tennessee. Coal Creek offers 30 miles of potential trout spawning streams for the Clinch River fishery. Interstate I-75 and railroads pass through the Coal Creek watershed, providing access for tourists and corporate expansion.

Community service initiatives in Coal Creek include:

bullet Reclamation of abandoned coal mined lands to improve water quality and reduce flooding 
bullet Conservation, ecology, and computer training programs in watershed schools 
bullet Expansion of current public water supply service 
bullet Measures to improve dental and health care 
bullet Formation of an Engineering Venture Crew and related BSA programs for area students 
bullet Development of a Motor Discovery Trail to publicize its rich history and natural beauty 
bullet Improvements to individual septic systems 
bullet Bioengineering to improve trout spawning capability and reduce downstream flooding and the flow of silt/sediment into the Clinch River
bullet Flood studies to quantify the impact of various flood reduction measures 
bullet Development of an Emergency Response Plan in preparation of future floods 
bullet Development of a web site at www.coalcreekaml.com to keep interested parties informed 
bullet Public events to educate students and residents on methods they can use to help themselves 
bullet Trouble-shooting to assist with problems in schools, libraries, etc. 

CCWF earns the trust and support of the diverse Coal Creek stakeholders by working as friends to achieve our mission. To be successful, our solutions must be win-win arrangements for all stakeholders. The more we work to find ways to include these diverse interests, the stronger our advocacy base. We illustrate the benefits of participating in our initiative to each stakeholder in face-to-face meetings and then keep them informed via the Internet. Finding the ways to include many interests in specific projects creates the sense of possibility and the momentum to keep our efforts alive. Our success can be viewed in the eyes of the children whose futures we seek to improve.

One of the problems we face is that, while government has created numerous programs for those in need, government has made it all but impossible to obtain assistance. Grass-roots organizations waste precious time and money trying to work through the maze of government organizations and stipulations. We live in the information age. Why not use this technology to consolidate funding from countless government agencies into a more user-friendly system. Having a pot of gold is useless unless you provide a rainbow to help us find it.

Active coal mining companies pay nearly $300M each year into the reclamation fund to reclaim coal mine lands abandoned before 1977, as administered by the Office of Surface Mining. Congress appropriates only a portion of this money toward its intended purpose. Full appropriation by Congress of the money paid into the reclamation fund is needed.  Furthermore, coal mining performed in accordance with the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 protects the environment. Data from Coal Creek demonstrates that, in addition to protecting the environment, mining performed since 1977 has reduced the potential for flooding. Government should encourage re-mining of abandoned mine lands as a means to improve the environment and reduce flooding which can be accomplished at no cost to the government.

OBSERVATIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS:

  1. The biggest threat to the environment is ignorance. The only way to combat ignorance is through education.
  2. If you are truly to improve water quality, you have to do it as a component of improving the quality of life of those who live in the watershed.
  3. Grass roots watershed groups offer a means to identify environmental problems and potential solutions not available to outsiders (i.e. government). Help grass roots organizations implement the identified solutions to environmental problems.
  4. Government has created numerous programs for those in need. Having a pot of gold to help the needy is useless unless you provide a rainbow to help find it. Streamline government and develop "one-stop-shopping" via the Internet to save grass roots organizations and government both time and money.
  5. Encourage grass roots organizations to work with all stakeholders in their watersheds as friends to develop win-win solutions. Legal actions, new regulations, and more stringent enforcement of existing regulations, should be the last recourse, not the first, in efforts to improve the environment.
  6. Coal companies pay nearly $300M each year into the reclamation fund to reclaim mine land abandoned before 1977 as mandated by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Full appropriation by Congress of this money is needed.
  7. Data show that coal mining, performed in accordance with SMCRA requirements, protects the environment and reduces flooding. Government should encourage re-mining of abandoned mine lands as a means to improve the environment and reduce flooding, which can be accomplished at no cost to the government (i.e. example of a win-win solution).

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