Regulators, advocates weigh merits of merging mining agency, BLM

Posted: Oct 31, 2011

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The Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement's friends and supporters have a message for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar: Leave the agency alone.

Salazar is preparing a secretarial order that would fold the mining regulator into the Bureau of Land Management, according to several sources (E&E Daily, Oct 26).

Rep. Mark Amodei (R-Nev.), former president of the Nevada Mining Association, at a hearing today asked White House Council of Environmental Quality Chairwoman Nancy Sutley about OSM's fate.

"We have not been involved in any of those discussions," Sutley said, "and we've only heard what we read in the papers."

OSM, which has about 500 employees, oversees coal mining and reclamation, primarily by supervising the regulatory programs of states and tribes. The agency is divided into three main regions -- the Appalachian, the Mid-Continent and the Western.

"OSM is the federal agency that provides oversight over our regulatory program," George Ellis, head of the Pennsylvania Coal Association, said in an interview. "They are a big player."

But Larry Arnett, deputy commissioner for Kentucky's Department of Natural Resources, said the reported change might have little impact on coal oversight.

"If they don't change the internal structure of OSM," Arnett said in an interview, "I would not see any significant impact within the states."

An environmentalist who pushed for the passage of the 1977 Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which led to the creation of OSM, expressed dismay at the possibility of a merger.

"A merger of OSMRE and BLM would be truly devastating and would violate the spirit and letter of the Federal strip mine law which created the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement," the environmentalist said in a statement. "An OSMRE and BLM merger would be especially damaging to the non-federal eastern, midwestern coalfields and distort the necessary separation of leasing and mining decision-making in the west."

Sources say merging OSM into the much larger BLM, which has about 10,000 permanent employees, could save money and help streamline administration.

But others question whether it would make a difference.

"In the scheme of government fat, OSM is one of the tiniest little targets you can take aim at," said Kathy Karpan, a former OSM director, said in an interview from her Wyoming office. "It's a little tiny entity that would be lost at BLM."

OSM's 2011 budget appropriation is about $160 million compared to more than $1.1 billion for BLM. President Obama has proposed OSM cuts, including reclamation payments to states that have finished cleanups of abandoned coal mines.

A congressional aide wondered aloud today whether the administration could make merge OSM and BLM without legislative action. It is a sentiment shared by other insiders.

"One question is 'How can this be legal?'" said one former Interior official who served during the Clinton administration. "The two agencies really don't have much overlap."

OSM is under fire from industry and lawmakers for efforts to craft a new rule to protect waterways from coal mining. Director Joe Pizarchik is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill about the plans next week.

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