The Black Thunder Strip Mine, one of the largest coal mines in the United States. Photo: Plains Justice.
Yesterday was the 33rd anniversary of the day President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, the federal law that governs strip mining.
On its Web site, the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is touting the law’s accomplishments and the new measures being taken by the Obama administration to fulfill the law’s promise:
OSM has taken the lead in finding innovative ways to regulate coal production, reclaim abandoned and inactive coal mines, explore new technologies, and provide technical assistance to its state and tribal regulatory partners. As OSM positions itself to fulfill SMCRA’s promise of a cleaner environment and safer communities, its goal is to do so collaboratively, with its state and tribal partners, as well as its sister federal agencies. While we reflect on what we have accomplished under SMCRA, we realize there is still work to be done – and that work has begun.
But the Citizens Coal Council is hardly impressed … In its own statement yesterday, the council said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the White House are not serious about protecting coalfield residents and the environment from the adverse impacts of mining:
Aimee Erickson, Executive Director of Citizens Coal Council, said “Interior Secretary Ken Salazar is working to undercut the federal law by promoting weaker regulations and has ignored citizens’ pleas to fully enforce SMCRA.”
“The White House and Secretary Salazar refused to even think about improving environmental enforcement at the Minerals Management Service until an oil company’s terrible performance killed people and damaged our wetlands, Gulf Coast fisheries and beaches,” said Erickson.
“Irresponsible coal mining companies have already killed people, poisoned rivers, destroyed families’ homes, left communities without drinking water, and caused devastating floods. But the White House and Secretary Salazar have created a regulatory environment that lets the most irresponsible companies violate federal and state laws with impunity,” Erickson continued.
Citizens Coal Council Acting Chairman John Wathen said “When citizens met last year with Interior officials to encourage consideration of other nominees to run the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE), because President Obama’s choice, Joseph Pizarchik, had let the coal industry get away with destructive practices in Pennsylvania, we were told not to worry. We were told that the Administration and Secretary Salazar would set the policy. A year later, Secretary Salazar’s policy continues to keep OSMRE’s record of subservience to the worst lawbreakers in the coal industry. Interior also continues to green light strip mine permits where full reclamation under SMCRA is highly unlikely to be achieved. While the OSMRE has increased meetings with citizens, the agency reduces enforcement resources and allows states to fail to even meet the minimum required number of inspections under SMCRA.”
The Citizens Coal Council noted these comments, submitted in June to OSMRE, by longtime citizen group lawyer Tom FitzGerald:
The change in leadership offers a potential opportunity for a rededication to the principles of the 1977 mining law “to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations” and to give effect to the mission of the Clean Water Act to “end water pollution”. The state and federal regulatory agencies have the necessary tools to demand much more accountability in all forms of surface mine planning and performance with respect to mine planning, reducing the size and number of valley fills, reforming blasting regulations to better protect the public, restricting the appropriation of public streams for sediment control, eliminating new high and moderate hazard coal waste impoundments and requiring closure and dewatering of old ones; and broadening monitoring and pollution control obligations of coal companies. Unfortunately, the principles established by Congress have been lost in the hands of a federal agency that has, for the better part of its existence, been largely captive to the wishes of the industry it regulates.
I can’t help but think about House Natural Resources Chairman Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., who has been busy lately pushing legislation to respond to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf … and all the while ignoring the “pervasive and irreversible” damage being done by the coal industry in his own backyard.
It’s been three years since the 30th anniversary of SMCRA, when citizen groups appeared before Rahall’s committee and outlined the many ways that the law isn’t being properly enforced to protect the coalfields.
After those hearings, Rahall promised to closely examine the citizen complaints. But since then, we haven’t seen anything out of Rahall’s personal office or his committee to deal with these problems, despite the many things that could be done.
Instead, Congressman Rahall is leading the charge to try to fight the Obama administration’s efforts to reduce mining’s impacts in Appalachia. And where has this political strategy gotten him? Last time I checked, mining companies are working as hard as they can to try to help Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship’s friend Spike Maynard unseat Congressman Rahall.