Coal Tattoo

Mountaintop removal: What’s Obama going to do?


I keep coming back to this question. Anybody have any good answers?

The Interior Department and Office of Surface Mining PR folks didn’t bother to tell me about today’s press conference call for their buffer zone announcement. Luckily, someone else tipped me off. But I did miss a few sentences of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s opening statement — and more importantly, I got so far behind in the queue for questions that I never got to ask Salazar anything.

Luckily, the comments are online — both the prepared remarks and an audio file.

Our Gazette news story is also available here,  and there’s more coverage from The Associated Press, Reuters, the Herald-Leader, and The Washington Post.

I have to say that the questions that other reporters asked were pretty disappointing. Nobody got to the heart of the matter, which also happened to be the issue that Salazar wasn’t ready to talk about — or really interested in talking about.

It’s all well and good for the Obama folks to say they’re going to reverse an “11th-hour” Bush administration rule change. (But in the Bush OSM’s defense, while the rule was finalized in December 2008, as Bush was preparing to leave office, the agency had been working on this for seven years — it wasn’t exactly something new on the agenda that was rushed through).

And sure, Obama can try (even with some interesting legal manuevering that appears to leave out public comment) to revert to the 1983 buffer zone rule implemented by the Reagan administration.

But are they actually going to enforce that 1983 version? Nobody asked Salazar that.

So, it was left to Peter Mali, a press spokesman for OSM, to offer me this answer:

“We are going to work with the Department [of Interior], the [White House Council on Environmental Quality], EPA and the Corps of Engineers to sort of work all of this out. I don’t have anything more specific than that at this time.”

Fine. But what happens if the U.S. District Court approves Interior’s request to remand the rule? Will the buffer zone be enforced? Or will it be ignored, as it was for more than 15 years, until environmentalists sued to try to force its enforcement?

In reverting to the 1983 rule, does Obama plan to interpret the way Bill Clinton’s regulators eventually decided to do? Or was today’s announcement just a PR move that doesn’t really change anything?

Citizen groups, state regulators and coal operators deserve an answer.

But the best OSM has to offer is this last paragraph from the Interior Department’s press release:

OSM expects to issue guidance to states regarding application of the 1983 rule.  Also, OSM expects to solicit comment on the potential development of a comprehensive new stream buffer zone rule that would update the 1983 rule, address ambiguities and fill interpretational gaps, while implementing the statutory requirements set forth in the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act and ensuring that SMCRA requirements are coordinated with Clean Water. Act obligations that are administered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Well, the Justice Department has until May 6 to file its request with the federal court. That’s the deadline for  Interior’s official response to a lawsuit that challenged the Bush administration rule change. Maybe smart folks at DOJ and Interior will sit down between now and then and sort out their interpretation of the rule, and let the public know about it in that filing.

This isn’t the first time that the Obama administration’s actions on mountaintop removal have left folks in the coalfields scratching their heads. Remember the craziness over whether EPA was issuing a moratorium on new mining permits?

Maybe the truth is this: Obama and his administration don’t really like mountaintop removal. But they don’t know what they can — or should — do about it exactly. They’re kind of feeling their way in a complicated issue.

What I don’t understand is why they don’t just come out and say that. Level with everyone in the coalfields — that means miners, citizens, regulators, politicians — rather than trying to tell each side a little bit of what they want to hear. A little bit of openness and honesty goes a long way.

And hey, don’t forget, tomorrow is the deadline for DOJ to file its response on behalf of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the request for a rehearing by the full 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in the appeal of Judge Chambers’ mountaintop removal ruling.

Stay tuned …