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Gainesville, Florida, Won't Buy Appalachian Mountaintop Coal Anymore

The city of Gainesville, Florida, won’t be buying its coal from Appalachian mountaintop removal operations anymore, and the head of a national environmental non-profit says the model could be applied in other places, too.

The Gainesville city commission voted earlier this fall to require the local utility—which is owned by the city—to buy its coal only from non-mountaintop removal mines, with a preference for coal mined underground. Gainesville Regional Utility can pay up to five percent more for the coal; if it becomes more expensive, the commission can vote to temporarily suspend the policy.

The push to change the utility’s coal-sourcing policy came from the local group Gainesville Loves Mountains. But the larger Appalachian Voices also supported the move and testified on its behalf. Matt Wasson of Appalachian Voices said the organization has attempted to get bans on purchasing mountaintop removal coal passed in several state legislatures—North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Maryland—but none have succeeded.

But he said this new policy in Gainesville could at least help make opening mountaintop removal coal mines less economically attractive to companies.

“It essentially creates an incentive for somebody who’s selling mountaintop removal coal to at least have to drop their prices significantly in order to compete,” he said.

He said situations like Gainesville are fairly rare—there aren’t very many municipal-owned utilities that also purchase mountaintop removal coal—but the success there could help other groups push for similar actions.

“It’s not a perfect policy, sure, we’d love to see an outright ban but since we know that even in fairly favorable circumstances, where we’ve got fairly moderate legislators, we still weren’t able to get them to take the leap, this creates possibly a new middle ground where we could get something passed,” Wasson said.

The policy differentiates between mountaintop removal—which is a type of surface mining—and other surface mining operations, but Wasson said the easiest way to comply would be to only purchase coal from underground coal mines.

Some utilities have already moved away from Central Appalachian coal, because the higher-sulfur coal mined in Western Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana is often cheaper. Last year, officials at both the Tennessee Valley Authority and Southern Companyannounced their power plants wouldn’t buy Central Appalachian coal anymore.

A spokeswoman for Gainesville Regional Utilities said even with the new ban on mountaintop removal coal, the utility would likely keep purchasing coal from Central Appalachia. She said the company has a very favorable transportation contract with CSX Rail, so the final cost of the coal ends up being less expensive than if it was from the Illinois Basin.

The Gainesville Power Plant bought about 125,000 tons of coal last year, according to documents filed with the Energy Information Administration. Only about 37,000 tons were from Eastern Kentucky coal mines; the rest was from West Virginia.

Erica Peterson is WFPL's Director of News and Programming.