Over the past decade, National Coal LLC's Zeb Mountain coal mine on the Scott/Campbell county border has become a rallying point for environmental groups and East Tennessee residents opposed to the practice known as "mountain-top removal". Mountain top removal is a process by which the summit or summit ridge of a mountain is removed to expose the coal seams that lie beneath. After the coal is mined, the summit is replaced to mimic the original contour of the mountain.
Opponents have long criticized the process, claiming it does irreversible damage to the landscape and the environmental integrity of the mountain.
A consent decree approved this week by US District Court Judge Tom Varlan effectively closes the Zeb Mountain operation, as well as another mine in Campbell County. The consent decree is the result of a two-year legal action filed by the Sierra Club, Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment (SOCM) and the Tennessee Clean Water Network (TCWN). In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs charged National Coal with a variety of Clean Water Act violations. National Coal agreed in June to cease its East Tennessee operations, pending Varlan's final approval of the agreement.
"We are immeasurably pleased to finally be able to close the books on the Zeb Mountain mine," the Sierra Club's Axel Ringe said in a press release, calling it "a victory for all Tennesseans".
National Coal will now move ahead with the clean-up and reclamation phase of the operation, a process that could take years, according to TCWN attorney Stephanie Metheny.
Metheny says the consent decree doesn't automatically prevent another coal company from attempting to mine Zeb Mountain in the future. "But if they do," she says, "we'll sue them up one side and down the other."