A proposal to consolidate some duties of a federal mining regulatory agency into the Bureau of Land Management was panned during a hearing in Billings on Monday.
Many opponents said the plan would be a conflict of interest for the BLM, because it leases federal coal for development and would be taking on the reclamation and enforcement duties of the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.
Some also questioned whether merging OSM into BLM was legal under the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act, which created OSM and its role as a separate regulatory and enforcement agency.
BLM and OSM officials heard from 14 people during a hearing at the BLM’s state office. About 45 people attended the morning hearing. Most of those commenting represented environmental organizations.
The consolidation is being reviewed by both agencies at the direction of Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who signed an order Oct. 26 to consolidate, then extended the time to gather more information. The Billings meeting is one of 10 meetings being held across the country to gather comments.
Al Klein, OSM’s western regional director, said his agency’s resources continue to shrink. OSM oversees state surface coal mining regulatory programs and has 525 employees.
BLM Deputy Director Mike Pool said the BLM is a multiple-use agency, managing more than 245 million acres primarily in the West and administering 700 million acres of subsurface minerals along with other programs.
The agencies are reviewing consolidations in four areas to become more efficient and to save money, Pool said. The areas are administrative support; environmental restoration of abandoned mine lands; fee collections and regulation; and inspection and enforcement and state program oversight.
Pool said OSM would continue to be independent under the surface mining control law.
But opponents had their doubts and said OSM should remain separate.
Steve Charter, a Bull Mountain rancher and chair of the Bull Mountain Land Alliance, said, “If you believe that the role of the OSM is to facilitate coal mining and the coal industry, then it’s probably a good idea to merge OSM into the BLM. If you think the role of OSM is to protect and restore the land, water and air from the impacts of coal mining, then it’s a very poor idea.”
If the merger occurs, Charter said, landowners affected by federal coal development could end up in an “endless circle of passing on responsibility” from the BLM to the state and back.
Shannon Anderson, with the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan, Wyo., said the plan “sent shockwaves” through coalfield communities and raised red flags for people who have advocated for stronger coal mining inspection and enforcement.
Consolidation would combine BLM’s “coal promoter role” with OSM’s “coal enforcer role,” Anderson said. Such a merger could create “a strong conflict of interest for even the most well-intentioned agency personnel,” she said.
Eileen Morris, a member of the Northern Plains Resource Council in Billings and a landowner near the Otter Creek coal tracks in southeastern Montana, said the BLM is giving away coal rights to companies that are making enormous profits. If the department wants to save money, Morris said, it should review its fair market value coal leasing procedures where “it is failing to capture billions of dollars of value for coal in the Powder River Basin.”
John Koerth, who supervises the Abandoned Mine Lands program for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said the lack of details in the plan makes commenting difficult. There was no problem with OSM that indicated a merge was necessary, he said.
The only support came from Micky Shober, a Campbell County commissioner from Gillette, Wyo.
“We’re OK with this as long as you streamline line your process,” Shober said. “We enjoy and we spend the money wisely,” he said of coal tax revenues.
The deadline for commenting is Feb. 1. A final report will be submitted to Salazar on Feb. 15, but Pool said the department has not yet decided whether the report will be released to the public. Comments may be sent online at www.doi.gov/bureaus/blm-osm/Comments.cfm.