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Interior defends proposed OSM merger

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Obama administration officials on Thursday defended their proposal to merge the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement with the Bureau of Land Management.

Coal industry officials and state regulators criticized the effort to merge the two Interior Department agencies, but also continued their insistence that OSM mostly butt out of policing strip-mining.

Environmental group representatives said the proposal showed a "fundamental disrespect" for coalfield citizens, but also explained that OSM has never lived up to the goals Congress set out for it in the 1977 federal mining law.

Witnesses from all sides appeared Thursday morning before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee to testify about the plan announced last month by Interior Secretary Ken Salazar.

Obama officials have depicted the move -- combining administrative and abandoned mine reclamation activities of OSM and BLM -- as an effort to save money and make government more efficient.

"The goal is to make government work better," Deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes told lawmakers.

But in response to questions from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., Hayes said initial estimates show the merger would save about $5 million a year -- a figure that amounts to less than one-half of 1 percent of the combined annual budget of the two agencies.

Katie Sweeney, general counsel for the National Mining Association, said more money could be saved if the Obama administration backed of proposals for OSM to beef up oversight of state mining regulatory agencies or dropped its efforts to strengthen a federal rule meant to protect streams from mining damage.

Sweeney said that "massive increases in oversight" are not needed and that OSM should not be "conducting unnecessary and redundant inspections that produce no results and illegally second-guessing state permitting decisions."

State regulators from Virginia and Wyoming joined the industry, complaining that they were not consulted about the proposal before it was announced. Senators from both parties also questioned the move, raising questions about its legality.

"There are great concerns on all sides," said Manchin, who as governor sued the Obama administration over federal efforts to curb mountaintop removal. "We agree that we think you're wrong."

But Hayes argued that the merger could actually strengthen OSM, freeing a relatively small federal agency -- its budget is one-seventh the size of BML's -- from many administrative functions.

Over the years, administrations and lawmakers from both parties have slashed OSM's budget and staff. Since 2002 alone, its staff has been reduced by 17 percent.

And some decisions by OSM leaders themselves, most recently in the Clinton administration, greatly reduced the agency's ability to take action against weak state mining regulatory programs.

Pat McGinley, a West Virginia University law professor, said that the Interior Department has historically "treated OSM as a poor stepchild" that has been chronically underfunded.

"However, the burial of an understaffed, half-alive OSM in the behemoth bureaucracy of BLM is beyond any prior marginalization of the agency," McGinley said. "Perhaps, at the highest levels of the Department of Interior, the controversy triggered by this ill-considered and cavalier administration decision will give rise to a new understanding and appreciation of OSM's mission -- and renewed respect for coalfield citizens."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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