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The Charleston Gazette, November 6, 2009

Senate confirms Pa. regulator to head OSM unit
By Ken Ward, Jr.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The U.S. Senate on Friday confirmed a Pennsylvania state regulator as the Obama administration's director for the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement.

Joseph Pizarchik was confirmed by unanimous consent, apparently meaning that the senator who previously had a hold on the nomination had dropped that hold and paved the way for Pizarchik's approval.

Coalfield citizen groups have opposed Pizarchik's nomination because of his record on issues dealing with handling and disposal of toxic coal ash and because of his answers to questions about mountaintop removal mining during a confirmation hearing earlier this year.

But Interior Secretary Ken Salazar praised Pizarchik on Friday, saying in a prepared statement that he "is a dedicated public servant whose experience in coal production will be invaluable as director of [the] Office of Surface Mining."

"I welcome his energy and insight on our policy team to balance the nation's need for continued domestic coal production with protection of the environment," Salazar said.

Pizarchik was not yet making himself available for interviews, according to OSM spokesman Peter Mali.

Since 2002, Pizarchik has been director of the Bureau of Mining and Reclamation within Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. Before that, he was assistant director and general counsel for the agency for 11 years.

When Obama nominated him for the OSM post, the administration called Pizarchik "a pragmatic innovator" and cited as a top accomplishment his work on a Pennsylvania law that gives legal liability waivers to companies and other organizations involved in voluntary cleanups.

In a news release Friday, the Interior Department said Pizarchik also "worked closely with the Pennsylvania State Police and the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security promulgating regulations for security at explosive storage magazines to prevent unauthorized access to the sites.

"Prior to joining the Department of Environmental Protection, Pizarchik served as counsel to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation dealing with contracts, mass transit, aviation, contractor qualifications and minority business enterprises," the release said. "He also formerly worked in private practice for an insurance company."

But citizen groups complained that Pizarchik has backed the burying of streams under valley fills, supported "destructive longwall mining" underground, and backed the dumping of toxic coal ash into mines. They also said he has supported "decreased transparency and accountability for the decisions of mining officials" and in Pennsylvania run a reclamation bonding program "that fails to guarantee reclamation of the land or prevent water pollution from coal-mining operations."

At OSM, Pizarchik will find himself smack in the middle of the ongoing debate over mountaintop-removal mining, as well as controversies over coal-ash regulation and other aspects of the coal-mining industry.

During a confirmation hearing in early August, Pizarchik said he would need to be confirmed and spend some time on the job before he could say much about mountaintop removal.

"Getting involved and getting a better handle on the details of that, and how that is actually being implemented, and getting an understanding of the facts would be the first basis to determine what has transpired in the past, has that activity been done in accordance with the law as enacted by Congress and the regulations adopted by the state and federal agencies, and then looking at those facts and deciding what would be the appropriate action to take at that time," Pizarchik said.

Coalfield citizen groups had hoped that Obama would pick either West Virginia University law professor Pat McGinley or Kentucky lawyer Joe Childress, candidates they felt would revitalize and agency that many critics feel never lived up to its goals of protecting coalfield communities and the environment from mining damage.

Administration officials interviewed McGinley and Childers, but then appeared ready to nominate a longtime Interior Department insider, Glenda Owens, instead. Environmental groups went public with opposition to Owens, and then administration officials said they were seeking other candidates.

Copyright 1996-2008 The Charleston Gazette

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton