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Obama's OSM Pick Dodges Questions on Mountaintop Removal

by Ken Ward Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- President Obama's choice to be the nation's top strip-mining regulator said Thursday he needs to learn more about mountaintop removal coal mining before he can comment on whether it needs to be more strictly policed.

Joseph G. Pizarchik is President Obama's nominee to oversee the nation's coal mines. As Pennsylvania's top environmental official for mining since 2001, Pizarchik rarely sided with interest groups arrayed against the mining companies, argued Jan Jarrett, president of the state environmental nonprofit PennFuture, in a Monday letter to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.(ABC News Illustration) Joseph G. Pizarchik declined to offer his views on the practice and its regulation during a U.S. Senate committee hearing on his nomination as director of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Pizarchik also declined to answer questions about an Obama administration proposal to make major changes in the federal Abandoned Mine Lands program, but defended his record in Pennsylvania regulating the dumping of toxic coal ash at mining sites.

"With the science we have, we have not had any evidence of pollution of groundwater caused by the use of coal ash at these mine sites," Pizarchik said in response to questions from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.

A group of Pennsylvania citizens and the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Integrity Project said Thursday that their own reviews have "uncovered substantial evidence of the contamination of water supplies from this practice."

"[Pizarchik] continues to insist, despite volumes of evidence to the contrary, that there is no evidence of degradation to water from coal ash in any Pennsylvania coal mine," Eric Schaeffer, director of the Environmental Integrity Project, wrote in a letter to Bingaman. "After resisting regulation of mine-filling for many years, Mr. Pizarchik has recently responded with a proposal that still falls well short of the standards needed to protect groundwater and surface water."

During Thursday's hearing, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., tried three times to get Pizarchik to discuss mountaintop removal and what steps he would take at OSM to reduce environmental damage from the practice, but Pizarchik, the chief of Pennsylvania's strip-mine regulatory agency, responded that he would need to be confirmed and spend some time studying the issue before he could really comment.

"If confirmed, I will get involved in that project and learn more about the different perspectives held by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps of Engineers, as well as other stakeholders of interest, the citizens, environmentalists ... the state agencies that regulate the actual mining activity that occurs," Pizarchik said.

Pizarchik continued, "Getting involved and getting a better handle on the details of that, and how that is actually being implemented, and getting an understanding of the facts would be the first basis to determine what has transpired in the past, has that activity been done in accordance with the law as enacted by Congress and the regulations adopted by the state and federal agencies, and then looking at those facts and deciding what would be the appropriate action to take at that time."

Menendez pressed Pizarchik for details of what the OSM plans to do as part of an announced program by the Obama administration to more closely regulate mountaintop removal. Again, Pizarchik said he could not answer in any detail.

"Without knowing the nuances and details of that, but if confirmed, I will be working for the president and I will be carrying out the course charted by the administration on that," Pizarchik said.

Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., asked Pizarchik to comment on an Obama administration proposal to stop payments from the Abandoned Mine Land program to states -- such as Wyoming, the nation's largest coal producer -- that have certified all of their abandoned coal sites are already cleaned up.

"At this time, I am not familiar with the details of the proposal or the basis for the proposal, so it wouldn't be appropriate for me to speculate," Pizarchik responded.

In a prepared statement to the committee, Pizarchik described growing up on a small family farm in southwestern Pennsylvania.

"Coal was a part of our daily lives," he said. "That's how we heated our home. I also knew many people who worked in the mines, so I saw firsthand the value placed on the job in the mines tempered by the effects of poor safety regulations and the environmental havoc wreaked by unfettered mining.

"Through friends and family," Pizarchik told lawmakers, "I witnessed the benefits of improved safety and environmental standards."

In a letter to Bingaman, 125 Pennsylvania residents complained that Pizarchik has promoted the burial of streams by valley-fill waste piles, reduced public input at hearings on new mining permits and ignored citizen concerns about property and water damage caused by longwall underground mines.

During one meeting about longwall mining, the Pennsylvania residents said, Pizarchik, "stated that people willingly sold their coal 100 years ago, and people in the coalfields should have known what they were getting into when they moved into the coalfields."

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