Coal Tattoo

Is OSMRE merger part of Obama’s ‘war on coal’?

It was kind of funny that last night’s public meeting on Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s plan to merger the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management was held out at the West Virginia National Guard Armory, behind a door that was marked “War Room.” It had to wonder if President Obama and his aides flew into nearby Yeager Airport for a secret meeting with West Virginia environmentalists a while back, to plot the administration’s much-criticized “war on coal.”

But frankly, the meeting was pretty much a waste of time — and this is coming from somebody loves the very notion of getting the public together and making our government officials sit and listen to us for a while.

Turnout was pretty low, and only a couple of the 15 people who signed up to speak actually took advantage of their 3 minutes of fame to give OSMRE and BLM officials a piece of their mind about the proposed merger plans. The industry’s lobbyists — Jason Bostic of the West Virginia Coal Association and Bryan Brown of FACES of Coal  were both there — declined to say anything at the meeting, telling officials their groups would submit written comments later.

A representative of Sen. Joe Manchin read part of a prepared statement. Someone from Sen. Rockefeller’s office said something, but she was so quiet about it even the court reporter couldn’t hear her. My old buddy Lewis Halstead from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection was there to listen, as were officials from several coal companies, including Alpha Natural Resources.

Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition was about the only person who had much to say, offered a pretty weak statement of support for OSMRE, saying:

We find ourselves in an awkward position of advocating for an agency that has often fallen short of its duties.

Perhaps if OSMRE could have gotten a couple of the local television stations to show up the politicians would have turned out as well and the industry lobbyists would have taken advantage of the chance to make with the “war on coal” narrative that they’re somehow seeking to make this OSMRE-BML deal sound like it’s a part of.

I did walk away from the meeting wondering why Interior Department officials didn’t let local OSMRE representatives like Charleston field office director Roger Calhoun run the event. The higher-ups and publicists from Washington and Pittsburgh didn’t know anybody and it was embarrassing when they mispronounced the names of people that everybody else in the room knew. Say what you want about Roger Calhoun, but he at least knows who is involved in the issues his agency is supposed to deal with, and his office is increasingly trying to play a bigger role in tackling things citizens are concerned about.

The meeting made clear that, despite efforts to make this into something it’s not, OSMRE is not — and hasn’t been for a long time — a major player in trying to protect coalfield citizens from the impacts of surface mining. What was it WVU law professor Pat McGinley told Congress about OSMRE being “the poor stepchild” of the Interior Department?

It’s a sad situation, but as I wrote when this whole thing was first announced:

But one thing is sure — by not doing its job in the first place, OSMRE has probably lost what could have been its biggest backers in trying to save it from a merger. And by not pushing OSMRE to stand up more firmly for coalfield residents, lawmakers who now question the Obama proposal have a hard sell in proving that a merger takes away a serious industry watchdog.

But another thing is also clear now: If folks like Sen. Manchin and Sen. Rockefeller, not to mention my good friend Rep. Nick Rahall, really think OSMRE is so important, why don’t they go back and read some legislative history, find out what the agency’s real job is — and go about helping the Obama administration see to it that the promise of the 1977 surface mining law is kept?