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Facing Coal Hard Facts at Interior Department

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What is up with the U.S. Department of Interior these days?  Unlike the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which appears to be walking the walk on mountaintop removal coal mining thanks to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson's leadership, it's quite another story over at DOI.  How else to explain the latter agency's rather ham-handed approach on coal-related issues of late?

First, there's DOI's apparent slow-walk on fixing the infamous Bush administration regulatory change from last December, which relaxed environmental protections to allow the dumping of coal mining waste into waterways.  Back in April, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar boldly blasted President Bush's 'midnight regulation' and moved to revoke it in favor of the original, more stringent rule protecting "stream buffer zones" from mining waste enacted back in 1983. 

Reversing that bad Bush buffer zone rule is a cornerstone of the Obama administration's expressed commitment to right the wrongs of mountaintop removal.  Granted, over the summer a federal judge blocked Salazar's effort to vacate the regulation without public comment.  But that doesn't excuse the Interior Department for announcing a brand new rulemaking process that won't result in any changes to the rule until at least 2011.  The agency could -- and should -- have published proposed changes right away and proceeded straight to public input.  

Interior's inexplicable and inexcusable decision to delay appropriate regulatory action is a setback for the protection of Appalachian streams and rivers, as well as for the people who depend on clean drinking water in the areas affected by mountaintop removal.  Clearly, the last-minute rulemaking under the Bush administration was a giveaway to coal mining companies, leaving America's waterways exposed to the waste and damage from this dirty business.  It shouldn't take two years to determine what we already know: mountaintop removal is one the most environmental destructive activities, especially for our waterways.

(Photo by J Henry Fair)

This disappointing decision by the Interior Department is compounded by the concerns among many that the agency is somehow less committed to righting the coal industry's environmental wrongs.  Anxiety about the agency's direction in this area is reflected in the Obama administration's nominee to head a key DOI sub-agency, the Office of Surface Mining.  Joseph Pizarchik, the administration's pick, has been roundly criticized by grassroots environmental activists and coalfield residents who charge that Pizarchik has proved to be a friend of coal during his service as the director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Mining and Reclamation since 2002.  That agency oversees mining permits and the enforcement of environmental rules related to mining and waste disposal in the state.

Under Pizarchik's watch, critics cite problems with his leadership on many issues, most notably the contoversial practice of longwall mining, which has expanded in the state in recent years, wreaking havoc on both waterways and property in the state.  According to media reports, residents say Pizarchik did not enforce existing regulations as the head of the office, and that since 2006, the department has made it considerably more difficult for residents to comment on mining permit applications. Public meetings are less frequent and often held during work hours, they say.

The U.S. Senate has yet to confirm Pizarchik for the OSM post, and a number of local citizens groups and environmental organizations are actively opposing his nomination.  "He's unacceptable," said Aimee Erickson, coordinator of the Citizens Coal Council.

Pizarchik certainly didn't help himself during his testimony back in August before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee, when he essentially whiffed on a question about mountaintop removal.  Although not a common mining practice in Pennsylvania, it's not unreasonable to expect that anyone vying for the top job at the agency most directly responsible for overseeing the enforcement of mining regulations in this country would be well-versed on this contentious issue, which has been much in the news lately.  In a nutshell, Pizarchik's response to a question about the Obama administration's increased scrutiny of mountaintop removal boiled down to an lame pledge to "learn more about the facts."  

There you have it: perhaps the world's worst answer to a question about the world's worst coal mining.

Certainly, it's not to much for Appalachian residents living with the dire environmental consequences of this reckless mining practice to expect that the head of OSM would already understand the pertinent facts surrounding what is, in effect, the world's worst coal mining.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), one of two senators on the committee who voted against Pizarchik's nomination, explained his rationale in a statement: "Transitioning to a new, clean-energy economy requires people who are willing to break free from the inertia of doing things the way they have always been done...I do not believe Mr. Pizarchik is willing to look at these issues with a fresh eye."

Since then, Pizarchik's appointment has been held up from a floor vote due to an "anonymous hold" placed by a senator.  Yet, Interior Secretary Salazar continues to stand by his pick to lead OSM, saying in statement that Pizarchik is the "right man at the right time" for the job who will "help move the department forward with coal production in an environmentally responsible way."

Say it ain't so, Secretary Salazar.  At a time when more and more people across the nation are clamoring for clean energy and questioning the dirty energy status quo, it's time for clarity, not confused signals from federal agencies -- especially in so far as mountaintop removal is concerned.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.

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