So yesterday was the 35th anniversary of the day then-President Jimmy Carter signed into law the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. It looks like Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and OSM Director Joe Pizarchik marked the event with some sort of ceremony.
Not mentioned on the OSM website’s promotion of the event, though, is this letter in which Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald turns down on behalf of that group the agency’s award called ECHO — “an acronym of the principles underlying OSM’s mission; Environment, Community, Humanity, and Ownership”. Here’s the text of the letter:
I’m writing to respectfully decline acceptance of the first ECHO Award. While I appreciate the recognition of the coal-related work of the Kentucky Resources Council, the 35th Anniversary of the enactment of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act is not a time of celebration of achievement, but rather, a somber reminder that after 35 years of implementation, and fifty-five years after grassroots efforts to see enacted a national program for controlling surface coal mining operations, the promises made to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept.
The enactment of SMCRA represented the culmination of heroic efforts by coalfield citizens, grassroots organizations and national environmental groups to bring to heel the abusive mining practices of the coal industry, and the bipartisan efforts of moderate legislators. The law promised to curb abusive mining practices with the goal of protecting landowners, the public, and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations.
In substantial measure, these promises have been betrayed, and across the nation’s coalfields, communities have borne the burden of the breach of these commitments. The citizens of the coalfields of the eastern and western United States have waited through successive administrations since 1981 to see the promises that Congress made in 1977 fulfilled. In a number of key areas, the failure of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement to assure full and fair implementation of the law has betrayed the promise Congress made to those who live in coalfield communities– that they would be protected from harm, that mining would be a temporary use of land, that reclamation would contemporaneously follow excavation of coal, and that the amount of time between disturbance of the earth and completion of reclamation would be minimized. Though Congress intended that the choice of technology would follow, rather than dictate, environmental protection, the coal industry has over the decades systematically
replaced the workforce with larger machines more indiscriminate to the terrain, and key concepts in the law have been weakened by regulatory interpretations in order to accommodate this shift.
The tools needed to restore this agency to its potential, to minimize the heavy footprint of coal on the land, water, people and communities of the coal-producing regions, and to fulfill Congress’ promise to the citizens of the coalfields, awaited an Administration that it was hoped would help a troubled agency recover a potential that existed for a brief period of time between 1978 and 1981. It appears that the waiting has been in vain, since the current Administration has had fully three years and more to undo the damage done to this law and regulatory program by 30 years of management that ranged from hostile to indifferent to Congressional intent, yet has done precious little of substance.
OSMRE remains compromised by inadequate funding to support its mandate, and a DOI proposed merger of functions that will further weaken the capacity and dilute the mission of an agency intended by Congress to be independent.
Four OSM Directors (L-R): Walter Heine, OSM’s first Director 35 years ago (1978-1981), Bob Gentile (1988-1989), Jeff Jarrett (2002-2006), and current OSM Director Joe Pizarchik.
Despite the earnest efforts by line workers for the agency over these decades, (and I am second to none in my respect for many of the field office workers and inspectors) OSMRE has failed to take effective action to address some of the most glaring deficiencies in the state implementation of the Act’s requirements. Where Congress intended that reclamation occur contemporaneously with surface disturbance and coal extraction, open-ended grants of “temporary cessation” or “inactive status” have left areas disturbed and unreclaimed for years, and in some cases, decades. Where Congress intended variances from the general restoration of original contour requirement to allow alternative post mining land uses be strictly controlled, “mountaintop removal” operations in steep sloped areas have been allowed to be misclassified by regulators as “area mines”; and by ignoring the requirement that mined land be restored to the original elevation and landform, coal operators have been allowed to dump mine waste into valleys rather than using the spoil to restore the premining elevation and landform.
Rather than preventing the dumping of coal combustion wastes into disturbed mining areas, where metals and other pollutants of concern can readily migrate through fractured strata into area groundwater, OSMRE has allowed the practice of dumping of coal combustion wastes at minesites, and proposes to encourage such practices through new regulations. States have been allowed to issue permits without proper consideration and mitigation of impacts on the hydrologic balance, and the quality of headwater streams has suffered. Downstream communities have been plagued by flash flooding exacerbated by failures to manage and promptly reclaim disturbed areas.
The SMCRA would not have become law without the courageous, outspoken, and unflinching advocacy of thousands of valiant coalfield citizens and landowners who dared to speak “truth to power” during the two decades-long struggle leading to enactment of the law. The passage of SMCRA held out the hope that coalfield citizens would no longer have to sacrifice the fundamental right to a safe and healthy environment in order to feed a nation’s desire for “cheap” energy. If the current Administration wishes, on this 35th anniversary, to recognize and honor individuals, then let us honor the sacrifices of people like Joe Begley, Ollie Combs, Jane Johnson, Dan Gibson, Harry Caudill, Everett Akers, Eula Hall, and those others who risked all to protect their families and neighbors, their homeplaces and their children’s futures, by adequately funding and demanding compliance with the requirements of the 1977 law in each state and each tribal nation.