August 6, 2009 -- Environmental activists say President Obama's nominee to oversee the nation's coal mines leaves much to be desired.
As Pennsylvania's top environmental official for mining since 2002, Joseph G. Pizarchik rarely sided with interest groups arrayed against the mining companies, argued Jan Jarrett, president of the state environmental nonprofit PennFuture, in a Monday letter to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. The Senate panel is poised to approve Pizarchik's nomination Thursday.
"[T]hough Mr. Pizarchik formally entertains the views of coalfield residents, sporting organizations, and environmental and community groups, very rarely do those views prevail against industry lobbying or cause significant deviation from a forechosen path," Jarrett wrote. Jarrett said Pizarchik was "not the appropriate person" to lead the mining office, part of the Interior Department.
Senate Energy Committee spokesman Bill Wicker said Wednesday he understood Pizarchik's nomination was noncontroversial, meaning it is unlikely to face opposition. He said he was unaware of any concerns about Pizarchik held by the panel chairman, Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM).
Pizarchik's office, the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, has drawn fire in the past for taking steps that activists and others said limited public input on controversial mining projects.
In 2007, one local newspaper editorialized against a move by Pizarchik's office to hold a hearing on a mine expansion project at 1 p.m. on a weekday, when few could attend, contrary to a request from the affected city to hold the meeting in the evening. Pizarchik's office justified the move by saying it was complying with a state ban on overtime pay.
Environmentalists had protested the daytime meeting, accusing Pizarchik's office of trying to quash public input.
"In general, we encourage efforts by the state to save money, but we can think of better places to start," wrote the Washington [Penn.] Observer-Reporter. "It doesn't make much sense to advertise a public meeting and deliberately hold it at a time when most of the public would be unable to attend."
Pizarchik and the Disposal of Toxic Ash from Burned Coal
Activists also object to Pizarchik's support of disposing toxic ash from burned coal into Pennsylvania mines, which they say leads to poisoned streams and drinking water. They cite the findings of a federal panel and Pennsylvania judges that coal ash disposal projects in Pennsylvania approved by Pizarchik's office lacked necessary safeguards and monitoring.
Pennsylvania is one of the leading recipients of coal ash, a byproduct of coal-burning power plants. Over 130 million tons of the ash are generated annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The ash can contain arsenic, mercury and other toxins.
"[Pizarchik] continues to insist despite volumes of evidence to the contrary that there is no evidence of degradation to water from coal ash in any Pennsylvania mine," wrote Eric Shaffer, of the Environmental Integrity Project, to the Senate panel Wednesday.
Pizarchik's office referred all inquiries to the Interior Department. In an emailed response to questions, Interior spokeswoman Kendra Barkoff called Pitzarchik "highly qualified" for the post to which he has been picked, having led a "lifetime dedicated to balanced, innovative natural resource management."
"He is fair-minded, listens to all perspectives, and has a deep commitment to protecting our nation's lands, waterways, and communities, and enforcing our environmental laws," read Barkoff's statement.
The consensus among several current and former Office of Surface Mining employees was that Pizarchik was likely to speed approval for mining projects, not address environmental concerns, said Jeff Ruch of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"We've been hearing. . . that he's an appointee that's going to make the mining permits run on time," Ruch said Wednesday. "As far as eliminating the abuses of mountaintop removal and turn[ing] around a troubled agency, he's an improbable candidate," based on his record in Pennsylvania, Ruch said.
Calls to the White House went unreturned.