Below the Surface: Coal Czar Nominee's Troubling Record

Some Americans who live near coal mines are worried about their future health and safety if President Bush's nominee to oversee that industry receives congressional approval.

Residents, community groups and others charge that Jeffrey Jarrett, a former manager for both the Cravat Coal and Drummond Coal companies, tried in the past to undermine the authority of the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) -- the very agency he has now been chosen to lead. That leadership is critical, residents say, because if Congress approves proposals supported by the Bush-Cheney administration, domestic coal production could spike.

Jarrett currently heads mineral resources management in Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. Last July, Bush nominated him to lead the OSM. Jarrett worked for the OSM from 1988 to 1994 as deputy assistant director.

According to OSM internal documents that are now the center of a Senate investigation, Jarrett improperly involved himself in an on-going investigation into coal mine blasting while he worked at the OSM, in an apparent attempt to discredit the agency. It was a time when appointees of the Reagan administration were considered to be intent on dismantling the l977 Surface Mining Act, which created the OSM.

The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee abruptly aborted a hearing on Jarrett's nomination on Oct. 3, after an FBI report stated the nominee may have violated the law when he made public an OSM personnel file without authorization in 1993.

According to the documents, Jarrett made improper and misleading statements about the agency to a resident in Evansville, Ind., who had claimed that nearby coal mine blasting was causing property damage. On four separate occasions in July and August of 1993, Jarrett contacted Freda Harris, a community activist in Evansville. He cited material he claimed was from an OSM report on the blasting. According to Harris, Jarrett told her that an OSM supervisor and investigator were "manipulating the results of the report to do bad things to the citizens" in the area.

Jarrett allegedly attempted to spread similar rumors to an out-of-state organizer, Carolyn Johnson of the Citizens Coal Council, which represents 54 membership organizations in coal field communities. The council was working with Evansville residents in 1993. Jarrett attempted to convince Johnson of similar things, she said, in an apparent attempt to undermine the agency's credibility.

"He presented himself as a great friend of citizens, and told me that he'd been our ally on the inside for a long time and we just didn't happen to know it," Johnson said. "I'd never seen any evidence of his having been helpful at all."

An OSM internal report said Jarrett had fabricated his "proof" of agency personnel manipulating results from an unrelated personnel report, and falsely presented it to Harris.

When Harris started receiving what she described as "harassing" phone calls from Jarrett, she contacted Jarrett's supervisor, Carl Close, who sent an investigator from his Pittsburgh office to Evansville.

For Close, the report that came back was unequivocal.

"That was a very upsetting set of facts, which clearly indicated to me that Jarrett had made an effort to undermine the agency's credibility," Close said. "He attempted to indicate that the Office of Surface Mining had not really made a fair appraisal of the situation, that we were sort of leaning the wrong way, and not (being as) objective as we should be."

In its final report, the OSM decided the coal mine explosions were not responsible for property damage. Later, Freda Harris and others won a lawsuit against the company responsible for the blasting.

Meanwhile, however, the federal agency took official action against Jarrett for his conduct, reassigning him to another division. Almost eight years later, President Bush nominated him to head the agency.

Jarrett did not respond to multiple requests for an interview. In his written statement to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee dated Oct. 3, Jarrett made no mention of his involvement in the 1993 coal mine blasting investigation in Evansville.

Bill Wicker, press secretary for the Democrats on the committee, said as a matter of policy the committee cannot comment on a nomination while it is under consideration.

Interior Secretary Gale Norton has praised Jarrett as a "perfect choice" committed to environmental protections.

America's appetite for the black rock is enormous. More than 50 percent of electric energy in the United States comes from coal-fired power plants. The Bush-Cheney Energy Task Force calls for a $2 billion corporate subsidy to research and develop so-called "clean coal."

Coal mining -- especially abandoned coal mines -- can pose a number of environmental and safety hazards to nearby communities. Erosion from mining can contribute to flooding, and mines sometimes leech toxins into streams and lakes.

Few public interest groups are tracking the Jarrett nomination. One is Friends of the Earth, an advocacy group that works on national and international environmental issues. The group opposes Jarrett's nomination.

"Coal makes a big percentage of our energy, and the Office of Surface Mining is there to make sure that correct management is in place," said Kirsten Sykes, who heads the group's Interior Department watchdog wing. "The OSM is suppose to make certain that coal mines do not harm nearby communities. The head of that agency should have the mission of the organization and the public interests in mind."

Jarrett's nomination still stands. A hearing on his nomination is scheduled for Dec. 5 in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Given the weight of President Bush's authority in the post-Sept. 11 milieu and a broad desire within Congress to function in a bipartisan manner, presidential nominations may attract less attention now than during other times.

PNS contributor Phillip Babich is managing producer at the National Radio Project, which produces the nationally syndicated radio program, "Making Contact."

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.