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OSM strip mining rule delayed until 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration doesn't plan to publish a proposed "stream protection rule" -- its rewrite of a controversial strip-mining regulation -- until sometime next year.

Joseph Pizarchik, director of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, outlined his agency's timeline Tuesday in testimony to a House of Representatives subcommittee.

The OSM has the proposed rule listed among its "long-term actions," with the proposal not scheduled for publication in the Federal Register until August 2014.

"We remain committed to providing ample opportunity through the rule-making process for the Congress, public, industry, stakeholders and others to provide input on the proposed rule that will help us develop a balanced and responsible final rule," Pizarchik told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

Under a legal settlement with citizen groups, the OSM had agreed to rewrite its stream "buffer zone" regulation by Feb. 28, 2011, and publish a final version of the new rule by June 29, 2012.

The OSM missed those deadlines long ago, and its efforts on the rulemaking remain a target for House Republicans, who insist the agency's actions are part of a much broader Obama administration "war on coal."

When President Obama took office in January 2009, environmental groups already had sued the OSM over George W. Bush administration changes to the buffer zone rule, a regulation that critics of mountaintop removal argued outlawed large valley fill waste piles.

The Bush OSM eliminated the 100-foot buffer around streams, a requirement that had never been enforced, but also added language to reduce the size of valley fills that have buried hundreds of miles of Appalachian streams.

The OSM settled the litigation, and agency officials said they were working on a more "holistic approach" to protecting streams.

However, in 2010, portions of an early draft of an OSM study of its rule changes were leaked to the news media, prompting news accounts that the proposal could cost about 7,000 mining jobs nationwide. Those initial accounts, though, did not also detail potential environmental benefits or discuss major Central Appalachian coal production declines that are expected regardless of what sort of rule the OSM issues. The OSM fired the original study contractor, bringing allegations from industry supporters that agency officials wanted to cover up job-loss projections they didn't like.

Republican House leaders continued their criticism of the OSM during Tuesday's hearing, which they had titled, "War on Jobs: Examining the Operations of the Office of Surface Mining and the Status of the Stream Buffer Zone Rule."

Subcommittee Chairman Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., complained that the OSM spent $9 million on the Bush administration rule changes without ever implementing those amendments, and that "the ongoing inability to actually conduct rulemaking" has led to the 2014 timetable.

In January, a coalition of environmental groups went back to federal court to try to force the OSM to act. The case is pending in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C.

Pizarchik told lawmakers the stream protection rule is part of Obama's "all of the above" energy strategy and that "protecting people, land, water and the environment and promoting responsible coal mining are not mutually exclusive."

"We are modernizing our rules and using the best available technology and science to improve mining practices in order to minimize and mitigate environmental damage from surface coal mining," Pizarchik said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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