Environmental activists, industry leaders and state regulators expressed skepticism today about folding the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement into the Bureau of Land Management.
This morning’s public hearing at Interior Department headquarters in Washington,D.C., was the ninth of 10 stakeholder meetings being held around the country. Despite ongoing efforts to explain their proposal, Obama administration officials do not appear to be chipping away public doubts about the merger.
“We are at a loss to understand what Interior hopes to accomplish,” said Greg Conrad, executive director of the Interstate Mining Compact Commission, a union of mining states. He said widespread opposition “speaks volumes about whether Interior should even proceed with this realignment of OSM and BLM functions.”
But Interior officials defended the plan.
“OSM will come out of this stronger, or at least that’s the intent that OSM will come out of this stronger,” said OSM Deputy Director Glenda Owens. “The goal of the consolidation is to improve government efficiency and service.”
The officials say the merger will likely integrate administrative duties. Some core functions of the agencies are also on the table, they say, to combine strengths and promote efficiency.
OSM and BLM may merge mine inspection and enforcement functions, for example. And the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, the agency responsible for collecting money from offshore and onshore mineral leases, may end up handling coal reclamation dollars.
Merger opponents see a contradiction in Interior’s plans, saying the agency’s leaders are proposing to combine key duties while promising to maintain OSM’s integrity.
“The organic acts cannot be amended by secretarial orders, which is what is proposed,” said Louise Dunlap, an environmental advocate who worked for passage of the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. She said the law mandated that OSM’s coal oversight remain separate from hardrock mining.
“Simply stated, the implementation of that order will be illegal,” said attorney Edward Grandis, who also helped push for the SMCRA. “The mission of BLM and the mission of OSMRE cannot be reconciled through the budget process or administrative realignments without an act of Congress.”
Jim Lyon, vice president of conservation policy for the National Wildlife Federation, also blasted the idea. Dunlap and Grandis highlighted his presence as evidence that opposition extends beyond groups that mainly focus on advocating for coalfield residents.
“We must publicly oppose this initiative,”Lyon said. “Folding it into BLM will likely mean less environmental protection, not more.”
Owens tried to reassure the critics. “OSM will remain an independent regulatory entity consistent with the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act,” she said.
The mining industry and many state regulators also object to the proposed merger, seeing it as part of the administration’s agenda to increase oversight. They say the agency could save money by scrapping the controversial forthcoming stream protection rules and stop meddling in state affairs.
“When you merge the entire OSM-BLM functions, you may want to consider discussion not mandating,” saidEdmon Larrimore,Maryland’s mining program director.
Larrimore said the relationship between states and OSM has suffered a rocky patch under the Obama administration. “This attempt by DOI is an example of that deteriorating relationship,” he said.
“It’s just very unusual to see almost every witness come against a proposal like this and still see it move forward,” said Bradford Frisby, associate general counsel for the National Mining Association.
Interior leaders are using the public comments to prepare a report for Secretary Ken Salazar by Feb. 15. They expect this week’s final hearing in Kentucky to be a lively one.
Still, critics say officials should not have advanced this far in merger plans without consulting the public. Salazar’s decision to delay implementing the proposal helped, but skeptics say they are still not convinced their concerns will translate into action.
Asked whether the review team could recommend scrapping the idea, Owens said, “We are in the process right now of formulating the recommendations.”