Pan Appalachian Defender

Thursday, October 05, 2006


Tennessee Mountain Justice Summer (MJS) this year was hosted by United Mountain Defense (UMD). Our MJS volunteers engaged in listening projects, water testing, demonstrations, distribution of our newspaper, benefits, silk screening, field scouting—and a dozen activities.
In all their activities our volunteers excelled, but it was in their field work that they really shone this summer.
Our volunteers this summer tripled the content of our field testing page and gathered so many water samples that we used up 3 Lamotte testing kits. Our volunteers took the results of the water testing and utilizing map software at the University of Tennessee cartography laboratory generated maps listing the exact coordinates of each stream.
The value of this data to our campaign is that it builds credibility. Periodically folks in different states have called and asked how we use our data. Having field data and a grasp of what is going on in the field by putting boots in the dirt creates credibility that no amount of letter writing or petitions can equal.
Before we (UMD) began our water testing program occasionally state officials and members of the strip mine industry would be condescending. They would tell us we didn’t know what was going on in the field, that our comments during hearings on strip mines were not specific enough, that we didn’t even know where the strip mines were. In short that we lacked credibility. This stopped when the field data began rolling in.
Our first step was going into the mining agencies offices and requested access to their mining data. With the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) we initially utilized a Freedom Of Information Request (FOIA).
The staff of OSM explained that they would give us access to the documents that we wanted—but the FOIA request was costing the secretaries and office workers allot of time fulfilling the various FOIA requirements.
We dropped our FOIA request and gathered GPS coordinates (Global Positioning System: A worldwide radio-navigation system that was developed by the US. Department of Defense. In addition to military purposes it is widely used in marine, terrestrial navigation and location based services) coordinates. With these coordinates we found where the strip mines where located.
At the same time we requested access to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation (TDEC) mining files. After a few requests they gave us complete access.
We spent weeks in each office copying and locating mines. One day we used a pickup truck and brought our own full sized copy machine that we made copies of the documents with.
With the initial GPS coordinates we collected from our office research we began flying over the mines shooting high resolution pictures with the help of the non profit Southwings who provides volunteer pilots. Our coordinates enabled the pilots to fly two planes directly over the mines. During these fly overs our volunteers collected GPS coordinates for unidentified mines and landslides.
Then our volunteers went into the field and did on-site sediment testing and collected GPS coordinates of what they saw in the field—including clear cuts, landslides—and stream characteristics. They also collected samples of water from each stream which were tested when they got back to our office.
Then when our volunteers began going into the various agencies they had high resolution air and ground pictures with coordinates to show the officials and ask questions about. This led to further research and more field work.
Additionally we began recruiting scientists from around East Tennessee to go into the field with us and teach our volunteers. These scientists collected additional data and assisted us in numerous ways—including testing for iron contamination and providing test kits.
All of our data we posted to blogs which we linked to our web page. These blogs ( tap “field work”) contained our high resolution fly-overs, water testing results, field photos, data sheets and GPS coordinates. We sent these links to all the agencies involved in mining and offered complete transparency in our data collection. We even went out with OSM officials and showed them our testing techniques.
A common question is how can the agencies trust our water testing data as we are dedicated to the abolishment of strip mining in Tennessee?
The answer is simple—they don’t have to. Early on we had conversations with the various agencies about our data collection. Lamotte is the standard when it comes to water and field testing kits. Many of the agencies have their own water testing regimes. They can test before and after us when we provide stream data.
Additionally if we hit any spike in any substance we were testing that exceeded an agency’s previous samples, or projections—they could come test right behind us. Plus we offered to provide our water samples at any time for independent testing.
The agencies recognized the value of having citizen volunteers provide data from the field without costing tax payers a dime.

Many of the agencies who monitor strip mining in Tennessee are hopelessly under funded and understaffed. UMD began to supplement their work by providing high resolution pictures from the air and ground, and it worked.
At the start of the summer we spent 3 days hiking a 10 mile long strip mine that was being logged by Ataya Hardwoods in advance of the stripping. We identified several violations and as a result Ataya was fined and forced to re mediate their slob logging.
Additionally, now when we ask people to make comments on a pending permit we steer them to our field page. Rather than making comments based on generalities UMD volunteers can make comments based on specific GPS coordinates, high resolution photographs, and scientific data.
“Chevron deference” is the standard by which courts will review an agency’s interpretation of their mandates from the legislature. This is an extreme deference standard. When however an agency’s actions are “arbitrary and capricious” a court will overturn an agencies decisions. When comments are based on speculation an agency usually doesn’t worry much about court review of their actions. However when the comments are “you have the wrong GPS coordinates for all the streams in the area”, or “you mischaracterized the stream types in the permit” then ignoring those comments begins to look arbitrary and capricious. Even the most slob development must provide correct boundaries and maps of the proposed project; this is true of mines as well.
Our water testing program was on
going before MJS 2006, but our 2006 Mountain Justice Summer Volunteers tripled the field data we had at our disposal in 1 summer! In fact they were so efficient in their data collection that we began to document and list the massive clear cuts they were finding in addition to mining activity. Additionally the coordinates they provided were used during the Southwings flights for high resolution aerial photography of the sites they scouted on the ground.
Credibility. When we go into hearings now the agencies know that UMD knows what is happening on the ground. Our willingness to provide all of our photos and data is appreciated by overworked employees of the agency as it makes their job easier. This summer we had more staff at our disposal than all the employees in TDEC involved in mining.
As a result we have seen significant progress in our battle against strip mining here in Tennessee. Recently National Coal got fined over $170,000 for illegally mining through tributaries to the Lick Fork Watershed coming off of the mountain top removal project on Zeb Mountain. Our volunteers were in Lick Fork collecting samples several times in advance of this agency action—with scientists from the local university, collecting water and fish samples in this watershed.
“Science is where the rubber hits the road” is what one agency official told me when we began our water testing program. Our water monitoring program hit the road before this summer’s MJS volunteers came to Tennessee—but they carried it much further along.
Agency officials know that we are out in the field and monitoring the mining. UMD now has a better understanding of strip mining in Tennessee than any other group in our state. We also have credibility.
Thanks to all of our Mountain Justice


At 6:45 PM, Blogger Chris Irwin said...

where should be were.


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