Coal Tattoo


My friend Rick Wilson makes a pitch for green jobs for the coalfields today on his Goat Rope blog:

Many companies and public agencies are making more or less sincere noises about moving in a more sustainable direction. And there are public resources to support this emerging economy in both the stimulus package and President Obama’s proposed budget. There is also the possibility of using federal funds for reclaiming abandoned mines to create jobs aimed at mitigating some of the damage.

Of course, Coal Tattoo has made the pitch for increased spending on cleaning up abandoned coal mines across Appalachia before. And part of President Obama’s budget plan would help to do that, as I explained in Obama AML plan: Green jobs for the coalfields.

rahall_photo.jpgBut Obama’s AML plan is going to face a lot of attacks from Wyoming lawmakers and others. So far, it hasn’t even gotten the support of Appalachian political leaders, like West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin or House Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall.

So it becomes all the more important that Obama pick a strong leader, someone with real vision for cleaning up the coalfields (and strongly regulating strip mining) to run the U.S. Department of Interior’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Coal Tattoo has written before (see here and here) about the two candidates who have been most likely mentioned for the OSMRE job: West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley and Lexington, Ky., lawyer Joe Childers. The most disappointing — insulting, actually — thing that could happen would be for Obama to pick some industry person or a no-name bureaucrat from within the agency to take over the helm of OSMRE.

And that’s not just because of mountaintop removal. It’s made all the more important by Obama’s major proposal to help improve the Abandoned Mine Lands program.

Plus, there’s another key aspect of OSMRE’s responsibility that could be a key engine for creating green jobs in the coalfields: Proper enforcement of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act’s requirements to either return mined land to its approximate original contour, AOC, or to plan for and develop some sort of factory, commerical site, residential neighborhood, public park or building, or other improvement that leaves something behind to help the area economy.

Failed enforcement in these two areas by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and OSMRE were major parts of the Gazette’s 1998 series on mountaintop removal. See here and here.

As I’ve explained here, Manchin’s legislation for post-mining land use issues will do little good on this problem. Tough federal enforcement, oversight and technical assistance from OSMRE is what’s needed. Proper enforcement of AOC and post-mining land use rules would mean fewer and smaller mountaintop removal mines, and fewer and smaller valley fills. Combined with more AML spending — which could employ laid-off strip mine workers — this could be a huge economic gain for Appalachia.

But judging from testimony during a congressional hearing last year, the folks who have been running OSMRE for many years haven’t made any progress since then at properly enforcement the AOC and post-mining land use requirements.

glendaowens.jpgRahall grilled acting OSMRE Director Glenda Owens (a longtime Interior Department official) about these issues during a July 2007 hearing held to commemorate the 30th anniversary of SMCRA:


…in 1998 I publicly expressed concern with a report that the majority of mountaintop removal mines in West Virginia were given permits without AOC variances. A great deal of litigation and policy changes have taken place since that time. However, my concern remains. And I touched upon this in my opening remarks. And that is, to what extent are mining operations that are viewed as mountaintop removal technically not categorized as such? They may use a combination of point removal, area mining, and contour cuts. And for all intents and purposes have the character of a mountaintop removal operation, but have not received an AOC variance, and have not submitted a post-mining land use plan that includes those higher uses that would benefit the economies of coalfield communities, the better post-mining uses to which I referred. I would expect your agency has looked into this matter as part of its oversight. Would you care to comment?


Mr. Chairman, that is, in fact, correct. OSM is very much aware of the issues associated with mountaintop mining. As you mentioned, there has been litigation on the issue since 1998. We have engaged in rulemaking, and in fact currently we are working cooperatively with state and Federal regulators in the development of guidance on certain issues related to mountaintop
mining, such as AOC, the variances, the post-mining land uses, and return of mined land to useful and productive hardwood forestry. We have also engaged in a national rulemaking on two of the issues associated with mountaintop mining: extreme buffer zone and excess spoiled fuel rule. We have a proposal that is in final review, and it should be published in the near future. 


Well, I would only respond that it has been a little over 10 years I think since we last had our oversight hearing, where I asked a similar question and got a similar answer.


Well, I wasn’t here 10 years ago. But I can tell you that I was in the Solicitor’s Office at that time, and I was involved in the litigation on mountaintop mining. I know that it has been a struggle getting through these issues because of the controversies and the confusion that the regulation has wrought, which is why OSM now feels that a national rulemaking on these issues is appropriate.


But does OSM have a definition of AOC, approximate original contour?


We do not have a definition at this point. We are, in fact, working on a definition, looking into whether the definition at this time is appropriate.


Thirty years, and we are still looking for a definition of AOC.