Interior Finalizes Rule Easing Off Coal Oversight

A coal seam at the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Campbell County, Wyo. is pictured. (H/t BLM Wyoming/Flickr, Creative Commons)
A coal seam at the North Antelope Rochelle mine in Campbell County, Wyo. is pictured. (H/t BLM Wyoming/Flickr, Creative Commons)

By James Marshall, E&E News PM, E&E News

The Interior Department finalized a rule today that could curb oversight of state coal mine regulators.

Ten-day notices are a key enforcement tool the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement uses to ensure states respond to citizens who complain about suspected violations, such as a mine dewatering their stream.

Previously, OSMRE would issue a 10-day notice to a state when it finds a citizen complaint may have validity. A state program would then have 10 days to look into the allegation.

Under the new rule, OSMRE will coordinate with states more closely before issuing 10-day notices rather than doing so when a citizen feels a state hasn’t resolved the issue.

Interior says the rule will result in increased communication with state programs. Citizens groups, however, fear handing more responsibility to the states will result in mine operators getting away with unauthorized pollution or falling behind on reclamation obligations.

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“This rule restores SMCRA’s mandate of cooperative federalism, reduces duplicative red tape and ensures we work alongside our state partners who are the primary enforcement authorities,” said Katharine MacGregor, deputy secretary for the Interior, referring to the federal surface mining law.

OSMRE Principal Deputy Director Lanny Erdos, the bureau’s de facto director, previously told E&E News that state regulators hate receiving 10-day notices because it gives the perception they’re not doing their job. Erdos joined Interior after leading Ohio’s coal mine permitting program (Greenwire, May 13).

“This is a commonsense solution to a problem we’ve faced for years. As a former state regulatory official, I made it a priority to fix this flawed process when I joined OSM,” Erdos said in today’s announcement.

Joe Pizarchik, OSMRE director in the Obama administration, said responding to 10-day notices isn’t difficult.

If a state can’t make a site visit within 10 days to determine whether a coal mine has dewatered a nearby stream, for instance, he said it’s either because of malfeasance or the department hasn’t been provided enough resources.

Pizarchik couldn’t definitively assess the rule because it hasn’t yet been published in the Federal Register. But if it resembles the initial proposal, he said the rule is flawed.

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“It places burdens on citizens and infringes on their rights to ensure timely resolution of violations by mine operators,” he said in an interview.

Aimee Erickson, director of the Pennsylvania-based Citizens Coal Council, said a hands-off approach to state oversight would make it more difficult for citizens to get OSMRE’s attention.

“I think the motivation is the federal government wants to give the power to the states to enforce their laws,” Erickson said. “They kind of want to wipe their hands of it, basically.”

 

Reprinted from E&E News PM with the permission of E&E News. Copyright 2020. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net.