09/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Let Them Eat Coal Ash: OSM Nominee Pizarchik Must Be Stopped Now

With so many qualified candidates for the directorship of the important Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, why is the Obama administration nominating a controversial advocate for coal ash dumping, who also admits he still needs to learn more about the even more controversial and huge issue of mountaintop removal?

After eight years of rogue mining operators and Bush-era administrators, and reckless mining regulatory oversights, and with the shipwrecked OSM agency in desperate need of a makeover, the OSM nomination of Joseph G. Pizarchik, the seemingly good-natured and well-meaning Pennsylvania Director of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, is a colossal error.

While invoking his hardworking southwestern PA family farm credentials in a touching manner at the US Senate nomination hearing today, Pizarchik made two extraordinary admissions:

  • In the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, and the continual fall out over last December's TVA coal ash tragedy, and against the current move by Lisa Jackson and the EPA for greater regulatory oversight, Pizarchik defiantly touted his state's dumping of coal ash at strip mine sites and openly denied scientific evidence of coal ash pollution.
  • In the face of 38 years of reports and studies on the devastating impact of mountaintop removal in his neighboring state of West Virginia, under mining policies that even his future Department of Interior boss Ken Salazar said have "failed to protect our communities, water, and wildlife in Appalachia," Pizarchik dodged the question of mountaintop removal questions three times, and pitifully uttered that he needed to "learn more about the facts and details... what has transpired in the past," and that he didn't know the "nuances and details" of the Obama administration's move to "minimize the adverse environmental impacts" of mountaintop removal.
This was either a pitiful admission of ignorance on a complex issue of national importance, or a disingenuous pander to the rogue mountaintop removal elements of the coal industry.

As one fellow southwestern PA coal miner's granddaughter wrote to the local Washington, PA newspaper recently: "Citizens in the coalfields need to be heard regarding his qualifications. If Pizarchik leads the OSM, it will be a continuation of "the fox watching the hen house," where money rules and health in not an issue."

You can watch Pizarchik's hearing here.

As always, Charleston Gazette coalfield journalist Ken Ward has filed several in-depth stories on his Coal Tattoo blog: here and here.

On the issue of coal ash dumping, Pizarchik has been in the forefront of coal ash pollution deniers, even after a 2007 study found that "Disposing of coal ash in mines is contaminating water supplies throughout Pennsylvania, according to a report released today by Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Earthjustice. In 10 of 15 mines examined across the state, groundwater and streams near areas where coal ash, or coal combustion waste, was placed had levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and selenium and other pollutants above safe standards."

The report is here.

An analysis of the report concluded: "Disposing of coal combustion waste in these mines is threatening water supplies all over the state," said Jeff Stant, director of the Pennsylvania Minefill Research Project at the Clean Air Task Force. "If the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection won't act now to stop these dangers, the US EPA should step in to protect the residents of Pennsylvania who live near coal ash mine fills."

And now the head of this PA disaster will be in charge of monitoring strip mining operations?

In a disturbing letter to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, which is overseeing the nomination of Pizarchik, Pennsylvania coalfield residents excoriated the nominee for his past work in the PA mining agency. They found:

  • Mr. Pizarchik has promoted valley fills. In 2001, as primary regulatory counsel, Pizarchik supervised the drafting of PA DEP regulations implementing Act 114 that weakened the state's stream buffer zone rule allowing the filling of stream valleys in PA.
  • Mr. Pizarchik advocates the law should allow surface coal mines to be used as major dumping operations. An exhaustive three-year study of fifteen mines receiving coal ash in Pennsylvania, Impacts on Water Quality from Placement of Coal Combustion Waste in Pennsylvania Coal Mines (2007), by researchers and groundwater scientists for the Clean Air Task Force found that the PA DEP's toring data indicated the ash was contaminating nearby water supplies in ten of the mines. Mr. Pizarchik has aggressively defended the PA DEP program allowing power plant waste to be buried in unlined pits and old mines without regulatory safeguards, despite the threat to groundwater and the 2006 findings by the National Research Council. (NRC). The NRC concluded that this practice should be regulated with isolation requirements, comprehensive monitoring and cleanup standards.
  • Pizarchik's PA DEP coal ash mine fill program found deficient by PA Law Judges and the Interior Board of Land Appeals (IBLA). Both administrative law judges for the state of PA (Hazleton decision, 2006) and more recently of the Interior Board of Land Appeals (June 2009) have found the monitoring and safeguards necessary to protect water supplies from coal ash are missing from permits issued under Pizarchik's mine ash placement program. And in the latter case, the IBLA found the public water supply of Tremont, PA is threatened by these deficiencies- a fundamental violation of surface mining laws. SMCRA requires the issuance of permits for surface mining to demonstrate, through effective monitoring and safeguards, that such damage will be avoided.
  • Mr. Pizarchik has been resistant to citizen input. PA DEP mining policies under Mr. Pizarchik systematically removed the "public" from the federally required public participation. In direct contradiction to the citizen provisions of SMCRA -- and the intent of Congress to encourage citizen participation -- Mr. Pizarchik hasactively discouraged public testimony. For selected mining permits: While the PA DEP and mine operators are given the opportunity to express their views in a public forum; citizens are not permitted to speak publicly. Instead, citizens are required to submit their questions or comments one-on-one, with no witnesses allowed to hear their testimony or the state's response. For all mining permits: PA DEP Bureau of Mining and Reclamation policies require public hearings to be held during workday hours only -- restricting access for working people. Evening hearings are not held. Citizens have diligently opposed these procedures since their adoption in 2006. And as recently as the winter of 2008, Mr. Pizarchik continues to advocate for these exclusionary policies.
  • Mr. Pizarchik has shown little regard for SMCRA's purpose to minimize harm. During an "Act 54" meeting about long wall mining - a process immensely destructive to homes, businesses, farms and surface water supplies - Mr. Pizarchik stated that people willingly sold their coal 100 years ago, and people in the coalfields should have known what they were getting into when they moved into the coalfields. This is a rationale frequently used by the coal industry to justify their most harmful practices. However, the focus of regulatory enforcement should be compliance with SMCRA laws and minimizing harm, not defending arrangements made 100 years ago.

The letter can be seen here.

On the coalfield residents' final point, given the importance Pizarchik gave to his farm family past, it is a shame that he has been criticized for his disregard of the impact of longwall mining on his fellow southwestern PA farmers, many of whom have seen their fields and wells and farms destroyed by this destructive mining practice.

Bottom line: Pizarchik's nomination for the directorship of OSMRE should be withdrawn immediately.