COAL COUNTRY — Today, community leaders from coal-impacted communities launched a joint effort to urge the Biden Administration to nominate and confirm a director for Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE). While $11.3 billion in new investments in the Abandoned Mine Lands program was allocated by the bipartisan infrastructure bill, the federal agency in charge of managing and distributing these resources nationwide remains without a director nearly one and half years into the Biden Administration. This morning, a petition including 2,284 signatures was delivered to the Department of Interior and an online press conference was held urging the administration to change that by promptly naming a new director for OSMRE.
“With the coal industry in decline, it’s vital that OSMRE has strong leadership,” said Lynne Huskinson, a former Blackjewel coal miner and Western Organization of Resource Councils & Powder River Basin Resource Council Board Member from Gillette, Wyoming. “We need the agency to help plan for the responsible wind down of mines. As an environmental regulator, they can help address the time and pace of coal mine closure to protect workers and communities.”
Advocates made clear that the lack of leadership at OSMRE could undermine issues their communities are facing and threaten the decades-long work by community leaders to secure investments in the Abandoned Mine Lands (AML) program. The $11.3 billion over 15 years in AML funding secured in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act represents a massive increase compared to the current annual distribution for AML reclamation and restoration. But the distribution and administration of most of these funds will be overseen by OSMRE, which remains without a director nearly 17 months into the Biden Administration.
“Appalachian states are also receiving a surge of funds from the Abandoned Mine Land program authorized through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, with the Central Appalachian states receiving between 8-10 times as much funding compared to recent years,” said Erin Savage, Senior Program Manager for Appalachian Voices. “A permanent OSMRE director is needed to provide oversight to ensure these new funds are spent efficiently and effectively.”
The petition to the Biden Administration, signed by 2,284 people, notes that the ongoing decline of the coal industry increases the number of unreclaimed mine sites, threatening coalfield regions with polluted streams, damaged aquifers and heightened risks of landslides and flooding. A permanent director of OSMRE could ensure the agency tackles these unprecedented challenges while ensuring that every coal mine is fully reclaimed.
“There is some work still yet to be done. That’s exacerbated by the absence of a director at OSMRE,” said Nicole Horseherder, the Executive Director of Tó Nizhóní Ání from the Black Mesa Region of the Navajo Nation. “I hope they get someone immediately who understands the importance of compliance and enforcement on tribal lands. The most important thing is that people out here are still waiting to see a reclamation plan and a timeline.”
OSMRE was established by the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 (SMCRA) “to administer programs for controlling the impacts of surface coal mining operations.” However, SMCRA was not set up to regulate a failing industry and advocates note that it is essential to secure leadership with the long-term vision to adapt OSMRE’s work and regulatory structure to these changes.
“In this current moment, business as usual just won’t cut it,” said Peter Morgan, a Senior Attorney with the Sierra Club’s Environmental Law Program. “We’re now 510 days into the Biden Administration and we still haven’t seen a nominee to lead this important agency. We’re now seeing that mine operators are not being required to reclaim as they go, as the law requires, and we’re seeing that many forms of reclamation bonding are proving to be illusory at best.[…] The window is rapidly closing for this current moment that we’re in where industry still has funds available to clean up its own mess if it’s compelled to do so. We need a nominee to run the agency who recognizes this urgent need for action.”
In addition to today’s petition and press conference, seven organizations submitted formal comments to the Department of Interior on the Draft Guidance released in May for accessing the $11.3 billion in AML funding made available under the infrastructure bill — a key OSMRE priority moving forward. Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, Appalachian Voices, Jobs with Justice – East Tennessee, The Ohio River Valley Institute, Sierra Club, Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment (SOCM), and West Virginia Rivers Coalition joined together to provide detailed recommendations on provisions of the guidance to enhance public engagement, workforce support, grant accessibility and more. The comments can be viewed here.
Appalachian Voices is a leading nonprofit advocate for a healthy environment and just economy in the Appalachian region, and a driving force in America’s shift from fossil fuels to a clean energy future.