Saying that not enough has been done on coal mine reclamation over the last 35 years, Kentucky Resources Council Director Tom FitzGerald has declined an award given to the council by the U.S. Office of Surface Mining.
In a July 31 letter to OSM Director Joe Pizarchik, which was posted to the council website on Agu. 2, FitzGerald wrote: “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 citizens of the coalfields of the eastern and western U.S. have waited through successive presidential administrations since 1981 to see the promises that Congress made in 1977 fulfilled, FitzGerald wrote.
“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,” he added. “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.”
Even the environmentally-conscious Obama Administration has failed to deliver in this area, FitzGerald added. “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 [Department of Interior] proposed merger of functions that will further weaken the capacity and dilute the mission of an agency intended by Congress to be independent.”
The Department of the Interior announced in March that OSM will pursue administrative and program consolidations with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM), generating savings and efficiencies, while continuing to operate as an independent bureau within Interior.
As an example of OSM deficiencies, FitzGerald said that 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,” he wrote.
And by ignoring the requirement that mined land be restored to the original elevation and landform, a process called approximate original contour, coal operators have been allowed to dump mine waste into valleys rather than using the spoil to restore the premining elevation and landform, FitzGerald said.
The council is Kentucky’s only environmental advocacy organization offering legal and strategic assistance without charge to individuals, community groups and local governments statewide. It is a frequent critic of both state and federal programs related to coal mining and coal-fired power plant regulation.
The ECHO Award name is an acronym of the principles that OSM said underlies its mission; Environment, Community, Humanity, and Ownership.