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Trump Administration Seeks to Thwart Resident Reporting of Coal Mining Violations

 

 

June 15, 2020 - More than 36 organizations have joined a chorus of lawmakers and regulatory officials calling for an extended public comment period on a major overhaul to coal-mining oversight that would hinder citizen and federal monitoring of state programs.

The comment period on the proposed changes to the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, downplayed by the Trump administration as a “clarification,” closed today. The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement Friday rejected requests, including from two former OSMRE directors, to extend the window for public comment.

“The Trump administration is trying to gut citizen participation and gloss it over as a minor clarification,” said Aimee Erickson, director of Citizens Coal Council. “This rewrite contradicts the letter and intent of much-needed federal oversight of state programs.”

Residents can currently report environmental problems at coal mines to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement, which then issues a “10-day notice” to the state regulatory authority. The state must take action within 10 days to cause a violation to be corrected or demonstrate good cause for not correcting it. If the state does not respond, then the federal office may issue a notice of violation.

The proposed rule changes the entire reporting process to eliminate the ability of people to take violations to the federal agency. Instead it requires citizens to report violations to the state. It also changes the process residents would use to report problems to make it prohibitively difficult. Further, states would have unlimited time to respond, as opposed to the current maximum of 10 days, and response would be discretionary instead of mandatory.

“This is a blatant attempt to circumvent federal oversight so that the coal cronies running state regulatory programs can ignore the people being harmed by coal-mining pollution,” said Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

The 10-day notice provision has led to federal agency intervention at coal mines across the country for issues including illegally discharging waste into streams, blasting without a permit, and not cleaning up mine sites. In Wyoming a violation identified by a citizen complaint found that the state failed to secure funding for a bankrupt company’s potential mine cleanup costs. In Oklahoma federal oversight found that the state did not require a mining company to restore the land after mining was completed.

In West Virginia residents used 10-day notices as one part of a protracted but ultimately successful battle to relocate an elementary school from under a 2.8-billion-gallon coal slurry dam. In Kentucky people have reported the state mining agency ignoring their complaints for five years.

Earlier this month House Natural Resources Chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) sent a letter requesting an extended comment period and public hearing, as did Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.).

The proposed rule, published on May 14, is titled “Clarification of Provisions Related to the Issuance of Ten-Day Notices to State Regulatory Authorities and Enhancement of Corrective Action for State Regulatory Program Issues. Proposed Rule from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.”