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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The nation's top strip-mining regulator said Friday his agency is still in the early stages of writing new stream protection rules, despite a court agreement that requires the rules to be proposed by the end of this month."We are only in the initial stages of the rulemaking process," said Joe Pizarchik, director of the U.S. Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement. "We are still in the information gathering and developmental mode."Pizarchik held a short media briefing Friday, breaking a two-week silence about draft copies of an OSM study examining the potential impacts of various options for its new rules.OSM is writing the rules in response to the Bush administration's elimination of a 1983 regulation that -- if it had been enforced -- would have prohibited mining activities within 100 feet of streams.The Bush administration rule also included language aimed at requiring mine operators to minimize the size of valley fills, but Pizarchik said the language was "clearly not adequate.""It rolled back a more reasonable rule and swung the pendulum too far in one direction," Pizarchik said.He insisted that his agency is not out to eliminate mining jobs or shut down coal production."Jobs are very important, as well as the production of coal to help meet our nation's energy needs is very important, as well as protecting the environment, and protecting the citizens from the adverse impacts of coal mining," Pizarchik said. "We at OSM are charged with striking a balance of all of those activities."
In a March 2010 legal settlement with environmental groups, Pizarchik and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar agreed that OSM would "use best efforts" to issue its own proposed rule by Feb. 28, 2011.But Pizarchik repeatedly told reporters on Friday that his agency was in the very early stages, and that the draft study and draft regulations that have surfaced in media reports were nowhere near ready to be shown to the public."It is important to understand that we are at the start of this rulemaking process," he said. "That is an important rulemaking and we will move through it thoughtfully and deliberately."Initial reports by The Associated Press focused on parts of the draft OSM study that projected the agency's preferred alternative rule could eliminate about 7,000 coal jobs, mostly in Appalachia. But the study also showed that nationwide coal production would still increase, and that the proposal would reduce by 20 percent the length of streams buried each year by mining operations in the Appalachian coalfields.Pizarchik said Friday that some of the numbers in the draft documents were inaccurate. But when pressed, he offered no examples and backtracked, saying instead that OSM hadn't verified the figures yet and didn't know if they were right or wrong.Joan Mulhern, senior legislative counsel with the group Earthjustice, said she noticed that OSM draft study identified a preferred approach for its new rule, despite Pizarchik now saying that the agency doesn't know if the figures in its impact study are correct. That makes it appear that OSM has picked an alternative before completing a trustworthy draft analyzing the impacts of various alternatives, Mulhern said.
"This feels rigged," said Mulhern, whose group reached the legal settlement requiring OSM to propose a rule by Feb. 28. She said it seems unlikely that OSM will meet the agreed-to deadline."Obviously, they're way far behind," Mulhern said. "But they've already decided what they are going to do and it looks like they are trying to manipulate the analysis to fit what they want to do."Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702.