June 16, 2022 - Environmentalists and representatives from coal mining communities across the nation are pressing the Biden Administration, after more than 500 days in office, to finally appoint someone to head the Interior Department’s Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
From Kentucky to Wyoming, the activists delivered a petition Tuesday calling for action signed by more than 2,200 residents of both active coal-mining communities and those where mining has ceased but large tracts of strip-mined land have become environmental hazards and are in desperate need of reclamation.
“In practice, we are seeing reclamation stalled out sometimes for as many as seven to 10 years,” said Erin Savage, the central Appalachian senior program manager from the nonprofit group Appalachian Voices.
“Coal companies just aren't doing what's required under law, and then on top of this, we're starting to see bankruptcy and general company failures that are threatening the reclamation bonding programs that are meant to ensure reclamation.”
Peter Morgan, a senior attorney with the Sierra Club who participated in a news conference after the petition was submitted, said the leadership vacuum comes at a time of crisis and opportunity for the coal industry and the communities it affects.
As the nation has turned away from dirty sources of power, the demand for coal-fired electricity has declined, Morgan said, creating a wave of bankruptcies and leaving several companies “that seem to be teetering on the brink of bankruptcy.”
Without a strong regulatory presence by the agency responsible for overseeing mine reclamation, he said, the risk is that those companies could leave behind strip-mined landscapes that are a threat to public safety and the environment.
The problem is illustrated in states like Kentucky, where regulators have had a hard time enforcing environmental and safety laws that are supposed to make sure strip mines are reclaimed in a timely manner after the tops and sides of mountains have been blasted away to unearth seams of coal.
In April, Inside Climate News reported on how, as the coal industry has collapsed, companies in Kentucky have committed a rising number of violations at surface mines, and state regulators have failed to bring a record number of them into compliance.
At the same time, the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed by Congress last year included $11.3 billion to reclaim and clean up millions of acres of scarred, dangerous and polluting mine lands that remain from before Congress passed the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977.
The act established the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement and a new legal framework for regulating the highly destructive practice of surface mining, creating categories of pre- and post-1977 mine lands.
For active, post-1977 mines which companies are responsible for reclaiming under the new framework, “the window is closing,” Morgan said. “Industry still has funds available to clean up its own mess, if it is compelled to do so. We need a nominee who recognizes this need for urgent action. Business as usual won’t cut it.”
As for the money earmarked for mines abandoned before 1977, Morgan said spending those funds “will require careful and vigilant oversight to ensure they are used effectively with priority given to the worst sites.”
'Current leadership is doing an excellent job'
The petition delivered Tuesday noted that Congress’ $11.3 billion allocation to the government’s Abandoned Mine Land Fund increases by as much as 10 times the money states receive for reclamation.
The document also notes that Biden, upon taking office, "made a commitment to help coal-impacted communities transition to a clean energy economy” by “establishing a new interagency working group to support coal-impacted communities, and prioritizing funding for coal community and mine-land revitalization.”
Those goals, the petition said, “cannot be met without strong leadership at the agency responsible for ensuring the environmental health and safety of those communities. Please act quickly to appoint a strong leader as director” of the Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation Enforcement.
A Department of Interior spokeswoman defended the surface mining and reclamation office, saying its “current leadership is doing an excellent job leading the agency in an acting capacity.”
The office’s website shows its top official is Deputy Director Glenda Owens and says she is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the agency.
The Interior spokeswoman deferred questions about the appointment process to the White House, where the communications office did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did the National Mining Association.
Manchin’s support likely critical
Anyone nominated for the director’s position would need to pass background checks, an ethics check and win confirmation in the United States Senate.
A nominee would likely need the support of West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and a leading advocate for the coal industry. Manchin’s office did not return a request for comment.
Kentucky’s senior Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, would also normally be consulted. His office declined to comment.
The Trump administration did not successfully fill the top job at OSMRE and secure Senate confirmation until near the end of Trump’s term, in December 2020.
Pennsylvania attorney Joe Pizarchik ran the agency from 2009 through 2017, during the Obama presidency. In an interview, Pizarchik said he had no inside information on why the Biden administration had not made an appointment.
He said that Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has shown an interest and concern in coal mining issues and has been “very visible” by visiting coal mining regions.
“She understands the importance of abated mines and addressing acid mine drainage,” Pizarchik said, referring to a type of acid drainage from coal mines that is traffic-cone orange in color and kills aquatic life.
Still, he said, seating a director at the agency is as important now as it was when the coal mining industry was much more robust. Many states take the lead in enforcing mining regulations, but the federal agency has a role to play to make sure the rules are followed, he said.
In agencies like OSMRE, career employees will look to the director for guidance, he said, adding: “If they don’t have someone to provide that direction, they are going to be very cautious.”
During Tuesday’s press conference, Nicole Horseherder, the executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání from the Black Mesa region of the Navajo Nation, said an effective director could help resolve conflicts over the reclamation of coal mining areas on Navajo lands.
“There is a disconnect between what the community members expect reclamation to look like and what OSMRE is doing,” she said. “Community members are expecting to see grazing lands returned, with native vegetation. We are going to be returning to those lands, trying to use them the way we used them pre-mining.”
Lynne Huskinson, a Gillette, Wyoming-based, board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, a conservation and agricultural heritage group, spoke about her experience as a laid-off coal miner.
“With an OSMRE director, we could move forward and go to the next phase of coal, the reclamation phase, the cleanup phase and make coal companies face their responsibilities,” she said.
Many in coal communities are looking for a “just transition,” she said, and an OSMRE director could have a role to play in that.
Savage, the central Appalachian senior program manager at Appalachian Voices, said abandoned mine land spending to boost economic development needs to be allocated more efficiently.
Without a director at the office of surface mining and reclamation, she said, the staff is not able to make the necessary adjustments.
She also cited the problem of so-called zombie mines across states like Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia — mines that are technically not abandoned, but idled because of economic conditions.
Federal law, said Morgan of the Sierra Club, “contains many tools that could be used to address this crisis but so far, OSMRE remains unwilling and unable to bring those to bear,” he said.
“In OSMRE we need a director who has that clarity of vision and sees that reality, and is prepared to change the way OSMRE is approaching these issues, given the new reality that we're all living in.”