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Enviros Blast Obama's Choice for Office of Surface Mining

WASHINGTON, DC, September 2, 2009 (ENS) – Environmental groups are speaking out against the man President Barack Obama has chosen to run the Office of Surface Mining, which has jurisdiction over mountaintop removal coal mining.

President Obama selected Joseph Pizarchik, a long-time Pennsylvania mining regulator to head the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation, and Enforcement.

In the view of the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, that was a mistake.

“It is appointments like this that are causing many to become disillusioned with the Obama presidency,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting an Obama campaign promise to curb mountaintop removals from which his administration has backed away, approving scores of permits for mountaintop mining.

Joseph Pizarchik (Photo courtesy ENRC)

For the past 17 years Pizarchik has been engaged in Pennsylvania’s mining program, first as legal counsel and then as the director of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation.

During his tenure at Pennsylvania’s Bureau of Mining and Reclamation, says Ruch, “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.”

At his August 6 confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Pizarchik pointed to his accomplishments in Pennsylvania. He resolved a postmining discharge liability matter that was blocking progress on the Flight 93 National Memorial, and he led the state effort to secure explosive storage magazines, unique in the nation.

Raised in a Pennsylvania farm family, Pizarchik said, “Life on the farm involved recycling before there was an Earth Day. We practiced conservation measures that arose out of the Dust Bowl era and cared for the environment upon which we were so dependent.”

When Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, asked Pizarchik what he would do to carry out the White House’s stated goal of reducing the environmental impact of mountaintop removal mining, he did not commit himself to ending or mitigating the practice.

“If confirmed, I will get involved in that project and learn more about the different perspectives held by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as the other stakeholders of interest, the citizens, environmentalists, the state agencies that regulate the actual mining activity that occurs,” Pizarchik said.

Ruch says PEER members are disturbed by Pizarchik’s claimed ignorance on mountaintop removal and on what changes the Obama administration might propose, since that mining technique is not widely used in Pennsylvania.

“Given his industry orientation and the administration’s aversion to reformers,” said Ruch, “it would be more than mildly surprising for Pizarchik to ultimately take a strong environmental stand once confirmed. The Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources has yet to vote on his nomination.”

In particular, PEER objects to Pizarchik’s position as an advocate for the disposal of industrial coal ash in coal mine sites.

Pizarchik holds such disposal is a “beneficial use” of the coal ash.

Back in June, Beverly Braverman of the Mountain Watershed Association, a Pennsylvania nonprofit, wrote of her organization’s objections to Pizarchik, saying, “We do not believe this is a good choice as several environmentally dangerous policies have been expanded under his watch. “One of these is the practice of burying power plant waste in unlined pits, sometimes in old mines, creating contamination in groundwater.”

“We need a consensus builder and someone who thinks outside of the box to help solve this nation’s energy challenges, not someone who totes the company line regardless of the impacts,” wrote Braverman.

Referring to the massive December 2008 coal ash spill from the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Kingston power plant, Braverman said, “Now, it is obvious from the TN debacle that disposing of this waste under the guise of beneficial use or as an innocuous substance is a dangerous and ill-considered practice.”

Jeff Stant, director, Coal Combustion Waste Initiative with the Washington- based Environmental Integrity Program, wrote on August 5, “The Environmental Integrity Project (EIP) has serious concerns about Mr. Pizarchik’s nomination as Director of OSM because his record over the past seven years as the architect of the largest program in America to dispose of coal ash in mines demonstrates that he does not believe that SMCRA should be enforced to minimize if not prevent harm.”

“Rather, Mr. Pizarchik has exhibited the view that coal ash will not further harm offsite waters from the degradation that mining operations are already causing,” Stant wrote. “Thus ash minefill permits issued under his program have little if any safeguards and are recklessly endangering, if not harming, water supplies in violation of SMCRA.”

Lisa Evans, an attorney with the public interest environmental law firm Earthjustice that released a report on minefilling this year, has called the practice “a slow-motion and invisible counterpart to the TVA catastrophe.”

Earlier this month, more than 95 individuals wrote a letter of objection to Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico stating their concerns.

In his Pennsylvania post, they wrote, Pizarchik has promoted valley fills; he advocates the law should allow surface coal mines to be used as dumps; he has been resistant to citizen input and has little regard for SMCRA’s purpose to minimize harm.

And, finally, they point out that Pizarchik’s Pennsylvania DEP coal ash mine fill program was found to be deficient by Pennsylvania judges and by the Interior Board of Land Appeals, a point Stant also makes.

The Senate is expected to vote on Pizarchik’s confirmation when it returns after Labor Day.

Apparently staying in place as Deputy OSM Director is Glenda Owens who was named to that post in 2001 by President George W. Bush. Owens has a long record of defending mountain-top removal and was the Bush administration’s lead spokesperson on the issue.

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