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.