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New Bureaucracy, Same Old Sad Story?

Today Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced a major agency reshuffling that will affect how the government enforces laws on mountaintop removal and surface coal mining.  He will fold the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) into another Department of Interior subdivision, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

OSMRE is the agency that oversees the enforcement of the nation's surface coal mining laws, and BLM is the agency that oversees the federal government's management of public lands. Most mountaintop removal mining happens on private lands, not public lands, in Appalachia.

Press coverage of the agency reshuffle managed to ask an important question: Will this make a difference in the enforcement of coal mining laws? Will this change the landscape at all? 

First, however, before asking that question and allowing the he-said-she-said-style of reporting to ensue, the media might have bothered to take a look at what the landscape today actually is.

Thank you, OSMRE, for allowing:

  • The decimation of the Appalachian Mountains and streams
  • More than 2,000 miles of streams to be buried by mountaintop removal mining
  • An area the size of the state of Delaware to be exploded and leveled by mountaintop removal mining
  • The areas around mountaintop removal mining to have cancer rates two times higher than non-mining areas
  • Pregnant mothers near mountaintop removal mining to be ten times more likely to have a baby with a birth defect than pregnant women who smoke regularly throughout their pregnancy
  • Waters and streams throughout Appalachia that consistently test contaminated by dangerous heavy metals and that cannot sustain life.

Congress created OSMRE in 1977 when it realized the devastation of surface coal mining, and according to the agency's own website, it exists “to protect society and the environment from the adverse effects of surface coal mining operations."

But since this agency was created, it has suffered from a paralyzing lack of will to enforce the very law it was created on. Recently, Rep. Ed Markey outlined some of the major -- and tragic -- failings of the agency which have led to this explosion of mountaintop removal mining.

Said my colleague Joan Mulhern in her reaction to the news today: “For many years, the Office of Surface Mining, Reclamation and Enforcement has been more of a coal industry lapdog than a watchdog, and that’s continued during this administration under Director Pizarchik."

As Joan says, "Sometimes a reorganization and a shake-up can help, but unless the agency and its leadership have the political will and resolve to do their job and work for the citizens of America as opposed to the corporations, it doesn’t really matter what bureaucratic box you stick them in."

You can move this agency around all you want, but at the end of the day, are you still allowing mountains to be blown up and streams to be buried? Or are you finally stopping this and protecting the people and critical waters and environment of this country? If you are still allowing a mountain range to be blown up and flattened, the American people won't care about your title or the name of your agency. 

And let's be clear, President Obama and his cabinet must not make the mistake of thinking that a bureaucratic shuffle will convince us these problems are being appropriately addressed by his administration. Whether its allowing the nation's greatest and most enduring environmental tragedy and injustice to continue, or standing up for what is right, this will be President Obama's legacy.