House GOP leader releases documents, audio on stream buffer issue

U.S. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Doc Hastings, R-Wash., on May 18 released internal documents and audio recordings obtained by the committee through outside sources, which he said raise further questions into the manner in which the Obama Administration is rewriting the 2008 Stream Buffer Zone Rule.

The documents detail “catastrophic” impacts to small coal mining companies as a result of the administration’s proposed rule, said Hastings. The audio recordings of meetings between federal agency personnel and their hired contractors reveal questionable actions and motives. For over a year, the Department of the Interior has refused to provide these documents to the committee and has ignored an April 5 subpoena seeking this information, Hastings noted. A second subpoena was issued on May 11.

The administration has been trying to rewrite a more industry-friendly rule put out in 2008 by the George W. Bush Administration that gives coal companies wide latitude to dump rock and soil from mine sites within a 100-foot buffer zone around streams.

“President Obama’s Interior Department appears to be so determined to keep this information secret they’ve been refusing to comply with a subpoena,” said Hastings. “These documents and audio recordings raise serious and troubling questions about how the Obama Administration is going about this rewrite and the resulting economic consequences their new regulation will inflict on coal mining jobs across the country. The Interior Department must fully comply with both subpoenas and answer key questions about what they are doing, why they are doing it, and how it is being done. As these documents reveal, the Administration is fully aware that thousands of American jobs are at stake and it’s far past time for them to be open, honest and transparent.”

The proposed new rule, carried out through the U.S. Office of Surface Mining at the Interior Department, proposed to dramatically alter a regulation that took over five years of environmental analysis and millions of dollars to complete, Hastings said. Despite the fact that a thorough environmental impact statement (EIS) was conducted for the 2008 rule, the Obama Administration’s OSM decided to complete an entirely new EIS.

A January 2011 Associated Press story revealed that this draft EIS estimated that the regulation could cost over 7,000 mining jobs and cause economic harm in 22 states. Shortly after this information was made public, the Obama Administration criticized and dismissed the contractor it had selected to write the EIS.

The committee is examining serious questions regarding why this rewrite was initiated, how the rulemaking process is being managed, whether political implications are unduly influencing the process, the hiring and dismissal of the contractor, and the impacts the rewritten regulation would have on jobs, the economy, and coal and energy production in America, said Hastings.

Hastings said coal job losses were repeatedly talked about

A preliminary draft regulatory impact analysis (RIA) from December 2010 on the administration’s proposed coal regulation shows it anticipated significant coal reduction as a result of implementing the rule. By February 2011 (after the AP reported that the regulation would cost 7,000 mining jobs) several tables and charts were removed from the draft RIA that showed loss of coal production, increased costs and the resulting loss of thousands of jobs, Hastings said.

In addition, the February 2011 draft RIA anticipated that small mining companies employing less than 500 people, which according to the RIA make up 94% of all coal companies, would be “economically impacted in a catastrophic way.”

OSM Director Joe Pizarchik testified before the committee that the leaked numbers reported by the AP were solely “placeholders.” Yet the draft RIA from December 2010 shows that these numbers were used repeatedly by OSM.

There are digital audio recordings totaling about 30 hours of meetings between Interior personnel and hired contractors regarding the rewrite of the rule, Hastings said. Interior is ignoring a subpoena seeking copies of the audio recordings and has only provided heavily redacted versions of a few select transcripts, he added. However, copies of the recordings and unofficial transcripts provided to the committee raise numerous questions about the motives for the rewriting the rule.

For example, said Hastings, the audio clips feature:

  • An OSM official discussing how a benefit of the Obama Administration’s new proposed rule is no coal mining.
  • The proposed rule was being characterized as “atomic” for small businesses, with Director Pizarchik’s intent being to make the coal company decide whether they are “willing to risk their ability to ever mine coal again, against the possibility that they won’t be able to restore the stream.”
  • An OSM official worrying about how to “sell” the proposed rule to the public because it will only save 15 miles of stream, while costing millions in taxpayer dollars and thousands of American jobs.
  • OSM officials telling contractors to “pretend” that the 2008 rule was implemented and applied across the country when it was not, and explaining that this is “not the real world, this is rulemaking” as justification for using analysis that does not actually consider “conditions on the ground.”
  • An OSM official admitting that the contractors “did exactly what I told them to do” when completing the draft environmental impact statement. This conflicts with OSM Director Pizarchik’s testimony to the committee and others who have criticized the work performed by the contractors when completing the draft environmental impact statement, Hastings said.
About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.