Knoxville News Sentinel, November 23, 2013
"Axel Ringe: Endangered Species Act also protects nature, people, economy"
Axel Ringe is a member of the Tennessee chapter of Sierra Club and co-founder of the Tennessee Clean Water Network.
Those of us living here in East Tennessee are familiar with the scars and the bleeding.
In this part of our state, you don’t have to go far to come face to face with a mountain girdled with strip mine benches, bare swaths of earth that with every significant rainfall turn into rivers of mud that flow down and sully our waterways with oxygen-choking sediment and toxic heavy metals.
But we’ve also learned what can happen after the mining stops and Mother Nature is given even a sliver of a chance to make things right again. Over time, seeds gain purchase, grasses sprout and eventually bushy undergrowth and small trees replace the barren troughs with swaths of green.
Then, hoping to extract a few more loads of profit from the same fragile hillsides, the mining companies return with new proposals and promises of yet another temporary cluster of jobs destined to result in the same boom-and-bust economy we’ve all seen before.
As a result, though the work of many Tennessee residents helped to convince the National Coal Company to decide in August to get out of the surface mining business in our state, the work to protect our watersheds is not done. There are permit applications pending to reopen numerous mining sites within a couple hours’ drive of Knoxville, sites that will impact thousands of acres in watersheds depended upon by wildlife and people in our region.
One of the best tools we have to protect not only imperiled plants and animals, but the health of the waterways we all depend on, is the Endangered Species Act, which Congress passed by nearly a unanimous vote 40 years ago.
If not for this signature federal law, the people of Tennessee would not now be enjoying the benefits of bald eagles at Reelfoot Lake and our Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs; peregrine falcons in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and our cities; our numerous water-cleansing mussels with enticing names like purple bean, Cumberland elktoe and rough rabbitsfoot; and Ruth’s golden aster along the Hiwassee and Ocoee rivers in Polk County.
The Endangered Species Act played an important role in the August settlement with National Coal that will result in the closing of the Zeb Mountain mine. Though the brunt of the case had to do with violations of the Clean Water Act, conservation groups also threatened to file claims under the Endangered Species Act for discharges of selenium, a surface mining by-product that’s been found to result in deformities in fish, including the endangered blackside dace native to our area.
There’s no doubt that the possibility of having to face those powerful Endangered Species Act claims played a significant role in National Coal’s decision to settle the case and close down its operations in Tennessee. And that’s good news for all of us, because studies have linked pollution from surface mining to increased incidence of cancer and birth defects among humans.
Still, the mining permit applications currently pending all involve mines that would affect the quality of the water that’s critical to maintaining healthy ecosystems in this part of Tennessee. As a result, there are plenty of challenges remaining for those of us interested in protecting our watersheds.
While the Endangered Species Act is best known for preventing the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects as well as putting many of them on the road to recovery, in the process it has also done a great job of protecting our health.
Forty years after it passed, the Endangered Species Act continues to work today just as our congressional leaders envisioned it would, providing us with the legal tools necessary to balance our short-term economic interests with our long-term community interests.
Without it, there would be no balance at all.
© 2013, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
This article originally appeared here.