CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The Obama administration wants to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining, which enforces and oversees federal and state regulations on the coal industry, with another federal agency -- a move one West Virginia congressman called "rather bizarre."
Late Wednesday afternoon, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he is currently evaluating the best way to integrate OSM with the federal Bureau of Land Management.
Salazar said the move would strengthen mining regulations, currently under OSM, and the Abandoned Mine Lands reclamation program, currently under BLM. In a news release, he said the merger would be "undertaken with the coordination and input of employees, members of Congress, and interested parties."
Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., the last member of Congress who was on the House Natural Resources Committee when OSM was created in 1977, said the agency "provides a sounding board for Appalachian residents to express their concerns to the federal government.
"I am concerned that OSM will be diluted, or denuded, and will not serve as the same repository of coalfield residents' concerns," Rahall said during a telephone interview Wednesday evening. He called the move "rather bizarre."
Rahall, former chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and now ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he never heard about any plans to merge OSM with BLM until Salazar's announcement
"The two agencies serve separate purposes," Rahall said. "The Bureau of Land Management focuses on Western lands, on horses and livestock grazing on federal lands and on oil and gas leasing on federal lands.
"The Office of Surface Mining is more Eastern oriented. I want to keep those as separate and district agencies. It makes no sense to fold them under the same umbrella," Rahall said.
Colleagues who share his concerns, Rahall said, include Reps. Edward D. Markey, D-Mass., ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, and Norm Dicks, D-Wash., ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee.
Salazar announced today's order will take effect on Dec. 2, after consultation with the White House Office of Management and Budget and with congressional committees that have responsibilities over the two agencies. He said he wants OSM and BLM leaders to work out a schedule by March 1, 2012.
"We must always be looking for ways to make government work better, to build on our strengths and to get the most out of the limited resources we have," Salazar said.
Salazar specifically asked leaders and employees in the two agencies to hold discussions about the restoration of abandoned mine lands, collecting federal fees and oversight of state regulatory agencies.
OSM Director Joe Pizarchik said, "OSM has a strong record over the last two and a half years of providing strong and effective enforcement of surface coal mining and of ensuring timely reclamation of disturbed lands and waters.
"The secretary has asked us to build on our strengths by looking at how we can best integrate certain functions with the BLM, so that we are making the most effective use of limited resources."
Today, OSM has 525 employees based in the agency's headquarters in Washington, D.C. and three regional offices in Charleston, W.Va.; Alton, Ill.; and Denver.
The BLM manages more than 245 million acres of public lands, more than any other agency, primarily located in 12 western states.
Rahall said Salazar's announcement will begin "a four-month process. He said he could make all the changes administratively.
"This came all of a sudden, out of the clear-blue. I have no idea where the proposal was hatched, perhaps by some pinhead at the Office of Budget and Management," he said.
Reach Paul J. Nyden at email@example.com or 304-3348-5164.