As Consol Energy crews clean up another mysterious coal slurry spill in West Virginia today, the nation’s largest producer of high-Btu bituminous coal — and an aggressive operator of devastating mountaintop removal and longwall mines — will be closely watching the nomination hearing of their southwestern Pa. hometown mining bureaucrat Joseph Pizarchik to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE).
With millions of pounds of ammonium nitrate/fuel oil explosives being detonated nearby and flyrock coal slurry spills and coal dust threatening their lives, so will everyone else in the coalfields across the nation — and so should every American who believes we must not appoint reckless public officials whose records fail to uphold science and law in our mining policies.
When the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources meets today, Oct. 8, the stakes over the crucial directorship of the embattled OSMRE, charged with enforcing the sweeping surface mining reclamation laws, could not be higher.
If the Obama administration truly plans to move toward a “firm departure from the previous administration’s approach to mountaintop coal mining, which failed to protect our communities, water and wildlife in Appalachia,” according to Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, it must appoint a director who will lead the agency into a new era of regulatory integrity.
Given the irreparable damage of his mining record, Pizarchik’s entrenched support of the coal industry suggests that the OSM would continue its decades-old tradition of empty promises, lawlessness, and betrayal of coalfield residents.
This is not only unacceptable: the egregious crimes of mountaintop removal and coal ash dumping alone should compel the Senate to block Pizarchik’s nomination.
Widely denounced by virtually every major environmental and citizens group from his native Pennsylvania, and across the nation, the controversial Pizarchik is not only saddled with a growing number of legal suits for his “chronic failures” at the Pa. Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, and his defiant support of coal ash dumping in the face of growing scientific evidence of mind-boggling toxic ramifications, but his disingenuous attempts to shrug off the crisis of mountaintop removal as an insignificant problem that requires him to “learn more about the facts and details.”
“OSM is a demoralized, hollowed-out agency and the prospects are it will stay that way,” Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Jeff Ruch pointed out last month. “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.”
Pizarchik’s long-time role in failing to enforce Pa. mining laws has already drawn numerous legal suits and complaints.
In filing a new notice of intention to sue the OSMRE this week, the Pa.-based Citizens Coal Council, a national organization, determined: “In sum, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (“PA DEP”) — is engaged in a pattern and practice of failing to perform its non-discretionary duty to establish minimally adequate state equivalents to the applicable provisions of the National Historic Preservation Act.”
Last month, the Citizens Coal Council filed another suit over PA DEP’s failure “to implement, administer, enforce, and maintain its approved state regulatory mining program in accordance with SMCRA and the federal regulations that implement that important landmark federal environmental law.”
CCC board member, Michael Nixon, pointed out: “This is just one of the many reasons that President Obama’s nomination of PA DEP’s Joe Pizarchik to be OSMRE Director is unacceptable to so many people, in Pennsylvania and nationwide. It’s not too late to find the right person for the job, because that person certainly isn’t Joe Pizarchick, the ringleader of PA DEP’s chronic servitude to industry’s coal ash disposal and mine dumping schemes.”
In their report, Mining the Data:Pizarchik’s Decisions Have Been Contrary to Fact, Overturned by Administrative Law Judges, and Detrimental to Pennsylvania, the Environmental Integrity Project concluded that Pizarchik’s nomination testimony in August included several inaccuracies. Specifically on Pizarchik’s denial of any pollution related to his program of coal ash dumping, the report found:
The Clean Air Task Force’s (CATF) review of the impacts of coal ash minefilling in Pennsylvania found that contamination of groundwater was greater after ash placement at 10 of the 15 minefill sites studied. These conclusions of extensive contamination from coal ash minefilling were corroborated by three Pennsylvania scientists: two hydrogeologists and a professor of chemistry versed in coal chemistry.
At the PADEP, Pizarchik has dismissed evidence verifying contamination from minefilling as “outlier data,” yet his refusal to objectively review undesirable facts does not eliminate the overwhelming evidence of contamination. PADEP simply dismissed high data values in the CATF Pennsylvania minefill report as “outliers” without following procedures outlined in Pennsylvania guidance as well as federal guidance for assessing and verifying outliers or extending the “outlier” label to any data values that were low.
Coda: If CBS 60 Minutes, which did an extensive report on the toxic impact of coal ash last Sunday, had interviewed Pizarchik, the Senate would already be on its way to block his nomination and ask the Obama administration for a bona fide candidate to redeem OSMRE to its rightful purpose.
In the meantime, here’s the 60 Minutes report: