Monday, August 06, 2012

Longtime enviro lawyer declines award from strip-mine regulators, saying law's promise not fulfilled

Courier-Journal photo
by Tyler Bissmeyer
Kentucky's leading environmental lawyer has turned down an award from the U.S. Office of Surface Mining and Reclamation and Enforcement with a letter that amounts to an indictment of the Interior Department agency and its congressional overseers and funders.

"The promises made to the people of the coalfields remain largely unkept," 35 years after the federal strip-mine law was enacted and 55 years after efforts began to pass it, Tom FitzGerald of Louisville told Director Joe Pizarchik in declining to accept the agency's first Environment, Community, Humanity and Ownership Award, which OSMRE says is aimed to honor someone "who promotes the ideals of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 while also advocating for the “appropriate balance between meeting the nation’s need for energy without compromising protection of people, the environment and the surrounding community."

"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," FitzGerald wrote. "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."

FitzGerald said the Obama administration "has done precious little of substance" to undo the damage by 30 years of OSMRE management that has been hostile or indifferent to the intent of lawmakers who wrote the bill that became law Aug. 3, 1977. He cited examples, including lack of timely reclamation, mis-classification of mountaintop-removal mines as area mines, and ignorance of the law's requirement that mined land be restored to its approximate original contour. His letter is here.

Director Pizarchik, Secretary Salazar
"OSM takes seriously Mr. FitzGerald’s concerns," agency spokesman Chris Holmes told James Bruggers of The Courier-Journal, noting that Pizarchik said "OSM and its state regulatory partners can and should do better. The theme of the director’s speech was that 35th anniversary … is a time to recommit to protecting the nation’s economy, energy supply, and environment, and ultimately, the people who live and work in coal country." FitzGerald told the Louisville newspaper that he didn't blame Pizarchik, but Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

The award went to ecologist David Clark of New Mexico's Mining and Minerals Division who led development of a reclamation technique "that returns mined lands to the closest form and function of the land before mining," Holmes said. (Read more)

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