Obama's Choice for Office of Surface Mining Harshly Criticized

President Obama’s choice to run the Office of Surface Mining damages the administration’s environmental credibility, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), which said placating the coal industry is evolving into the central plank of the administration’s environmental agenda.

In July, after months of internal wrangling, President Obama passed over some prominent mining reform candidates to select Joseph G. Pizarchik, a long-time Pennsylvania mining regulator to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation, and Enforcement (OSM). Pizarchik is well liked by industry and loathed by coal community groups and environmentalists, PEER said. His selection "signifies that campaign promises to end environmentally destructive
coal mining practices, such as mountain-top removal, will be abandoned," the group said in a release.

During his tenure at Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, Pizarchik has hewn a solidly pro-industry line on topics such as acid mine drainage, subsidence from longwall mining and using mining slag as valley fill. In particular, Pizarchik has become a leading advocate for disposal of toxic industrial coal ash in coal mine sites, contending that it is a “beneficial use” of the same coal combustion waste involved in the disastrous TVA spill this past December.

Perhaps most disturbingly, during his August 6th confirmation hearing Pizarchik claimed ignorance on the issue of mountain-top removal or what changes the Obama administration might propose, since that mining technique is not widely used in his state. Given his industry orientation and the administration’s aversion to reformers, it would be more than mildly surprising for Pizarchik to ultimately take a strong environmental stand once confirmed, PEER said.

The Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources has yet to vote on his nomination.

“It is appointments like this that are causing many to become disillusioned with the Obama presidency,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting an Obama campaign promise to curb mountain-top removals from which his administration has backed away, approving scores of permits for mountain-top mining. “Putting forward a nominee who claims ignorance on a central issue so that his true position cannot be discerned is the sort of cynical politics I thought President Obama vowed to change.”

Born from a history of coalfield tragedies, OSM was created in 1977 to protect the communities and land from irreversible harm and assure prompt, thorough reclamation once mining was completed. The law that President Carter signed has never lived up to its promise, however. "The Pizarchik nomination denotes that reform of OSM will not be a priority in this administration either," PEER said in a release.

PEER also drew attention to Deputy OSM Director is Glenda Owens, who apparently will retain her the post given to her by President Bush in 2001. According to PEER, Owens has a long record of defending mountain-top removal and was the Bush administration’s lead spokesperson on the issue.

“OSM is a demoralized, hollowed-out agency and the prospects are it will stay that way,” Ruch added.

In June, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a coordinated review process for approval of new mountaintop removal coal mining projects, indicating that it would not stop the damaging practice. 

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