The Government's Failure to Protect

The federal government is not protecting the public from health hazards resulting from strip mining, say employees in the Interior Department. The U.S. Office of Surface Mining Control and Reclamation's (OSM) employees, in a non governmental report released this week, say that the agency is not enforcing basic safeguards against the effects of leaching acids and toxins from abandoned mines and that environmental clean-up is not getting done. The report, complied by a national alliance of pollution control and land management groups, was released on the 20th anniversary of former President Jimmy Carter's signing of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act which was enacted in 1977 to ensure protections for coalfield citizens living downstream from mines."When this law was signed in 1977, the federal promise to citizens of places like Buffalo Creek, West Virginia, where 125 people dies in a strip mining disaster was these tragedies would never happen again," Jeff Ruch, the alliance's executive director, said. "That promise was broken." According to the alliance, under Clinton's appointees, OSM has reduced inspections and inspection forces nationally by more than a half from prior years because of a $24 million cut in the OSM budget by Congress. As a result, said Ruch, OSM conducted no inspections in Wyoming, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Utah, Alaska and Iowa in the first five months of 1996. The report concludes that the record of the Clinton Administration on strip mining enforcement is worse than the records of the Reagan and Bush Administrations."It [the failure of the OSM] is not technical. It's not legal," Carl Close, former employee of the OSM, said. "It's because the OSM does not have a clear statement of its objectives, the agency has made enemies with the states, and because it is beset by internal mismanagement." The 1977 federal law established a program similar to a "Superfund" to clean up abandoned mines, in which money from a tax paid by coal companies goes into the program's trust fund. The federal authority to impose the tax expires in 2004.The Interior Department must ask Congress for an annual appropriation from the trust. Congress then decides on the final amount, gives it to OSM and the OSM gives most of it to the states, and the state hire contractors. Close said that because the OSM made states "the enemy" and never created a real partnership with the states' administrations, the clean-up never got done. Additionally, Close said that although millions are spent each year to reclaim mines, most of the money is held against the national debt. The United Mine Workers and the Citizens Coal Council, a federation of citizens groups, wrote to Clinton asking him to release the $1.2 billion in the trust to pay coalfield residents to clean up. "More than a billion dollars of job-creating, clean-up money sits in the U.S. Treasury," United Mine Workers' President Cecil Roberts wrote. "You have the means at your disposal to use the money that has already been collected to clean up the coal fields and put Americans back to work. You can restore life and opportunity to some of the most disadvantaged and exploited communities in America."Kay Henry, acting Director of the OSM, has admitted that there are problems within the agency and that the staff reductions have exacerbated the problem. Henry will soon be replaced by Kathy Karpan, who will assume the duties of Director of OSM."We call on Ms. Karpan to reassess the federal record of strip mining regulation so that the promise of SMCRA [the 1977 federal law] may finally be realized, more than a generation after its enactment," the alliance said in a statement.Additionally they hope Karpan will bring all parties on all sides, including environmental organizations, state and mining company employees, community members of coalfield areas, and the OSM, together to draft a clear statement of objectives."We want the justice that was promised to us twenty years ago," said Ellen Pfister of the Citizens Coal Council. "If it takes another 20 years, or another 20 on top of that, we will just go on fighting." Jenna Ziman is a Washington, D.C.- based freelance reporter.

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